Tuesday, October 31, 2006

A Rescue And A Contest

Hey, astronomy buffs!! (I know there must be one, or even two, of you out there.) I've got a couple of space-related items for you this morning. Both involve taking pictures of space, but with very different equipment. The first item will comfort the hearts of everybody who has been staying awake nights worried that the Hubble telescope is on its last legs, and NASA has been undecided about its fate, debating the feasibility of getting a shuttle crew out to make repairs. You can sleep well tonight, though, because a shuttle flight to Hubble has been added to the list of things NASA plans to do before the shuttles themselves are retired in 2010. Kelly Young, of NewScientistSpace, writes that the mission could occur as early as 2008.

One of the concerns that has delayed plans to send the crew to one of the most valuable sources of data that NASA has ever had is the unique danger of the journey. Young says, "If anything went wrong at or on the way to Hubble, the astronauts could not take refuge aboard the International Space Station." Obviously, this would make rescue both more difficult, and more urgent, since the supplies available on board the shuttle wouldn't last nearly as long as those on the space station, where an expanded crew would have provisions enough to last 70 or 80 days, compared to about 25 on shuttle resources alone. Nevertheless, the decision has been made, and Hubble will get an upgrade, enabling it to keep sending fantastic images to Earth for years longer:

The servicing mission, if successful, could keep Hubble operational until at least 2013. Without a shuttle flight, Hubble's instruments would have eventually started to shut down. The gyroscopes that point Hubble and keep it steady could last until 2008 and the batteries until 2010.

The servicing mission will add six new batteries, six gyroscopes, a flight guidance sensor, the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph and the Wide Field Camera 3. They will be by far the best instruments ever sent to Hubble.

Astronauts might also try to fix the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph by replacing an electronics board. Astronauts will attach handles on the back end of Hubble to make it easier to grab later, in preparation for its de-orbit, probably after 2020.

Now that we're all breathing easier about our beloved telescope in the great beyond, let's talk about something closer to home, shall we? If you've got a telescope of your own and an H-alpha filter, you've got the chance to view Mercury as it crosses the face of the Sun on November 8th. All you have to do is fly to Brazil, stay up until 2:37 a.m., align your telescope perfectly to the nanometer, and you'll have the chance to get a really good ten-second view. Get ready!! Don't blink, or you'll miss it!! Actually, that was a bare-faced lie, as I'm sure you could tell by my telling you to point your telescopes at the Sun at 2:37 a.m. Mercury's transit will take about five hours, and, according to Spaceweather.com, will be clearly visible from "the Americas, Hawaii and around the Pacific Rim."

The folks at Spaceweather are so excited about it they're having a Transit of Mercury Art and Photo Contest. All you need is the aforementioned telescope and filter, as well as a digital camera. Alternatively, you can draw it, sketch it, paint it--whatever suits your fancy. There are prizes and everything. Even if you aren't interested in entering the contest, head over and have a look at the winners from three years ago--the last time Mercury did the Sun dance. They're pretty darn cool.

Well, that about wraps up our space report for now. Very soon I'll have new space photos for you, though, so we have that to look forward to with eager anticipation. Hey, if any of you enter that photo and art contest, let us know, okay?