Discovery's astronauts delivered a Christmas present to the world today, putting the Hubble Space Telescope back in service after 24 hours and 33 minutes of repairs and upgrades that make the orbital observatory more capable than ever.
European Space Agency Astronaut Jean-Francois Clervoy used the shuttle's robot arm to gently release the telescope at 5:03 p.m. CST, then placed the arm into an upright salute as Commander Curt Brown fired Discovery's steering jets to begin separating from the telescope.
The telescope's re-deployment took place at an altitude of 370 statute miles as the two spacecraft flew over the South Pacific's Coral Sea northeast of Australia, its aperture door opened to the heavens before the release.
By 5:30 p.m. CST, controllers at the Space Telescope Operations Control Center in Maryland were reporting that the telescope was in normal operating mode. Controllers will perform two weeks of testing before resuming observations with the telescope.
"The HST is now orbiting freely once again and is in fantastic shape," Hubble Space Telescope Program Manager John Campbell said after the release. "The spacecraft is being guided by its new gyros, under the control of its brand new computer. The Hubble team is very grateful to the Discovery crew, to the launch and flight teams and to all those who made this mission so successful. We especially thank the families of the entire STS-103 team, who made so many personal sacrifices at this holiday season, enabling the Hubble Space Telescope to resume its voyage of discovery."
At 5:39 p.m. CST, Brown executed a second steering jet burn, lowering Discovery’s orbit slightly, so that it would begin orbiting faster than the telescope and move away at just under 6 statute miles per orbit. Afterward, each of the seven astronauts on board called down holiday wishes from space in several languages.
"The familiar Christmas story reminds us that for millennia, people of many faiths and cultures have looked to the skies and studied the stars and planets in their search for a deeper understanding of life and for greater wisdom," radioed Brown. "We, the Discovery crew and this mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, are very proud to be part of this ongoing search beyond ourselves. We hope and trust that the lessons the universe has to teach us will speak to the yearning that we know is in human hearts everywhere -- the yearning for peace on Earth, good will among all the human family. As we stand at the threshold of a new millennium, we send you all our greetings."
Over the course of three space walks, Astronauts Steve Smith, John Grunsfeld, Mike Foale and Claude Nicollier installed six new gyroscopes, six Voltage/Temperature Improvement Kits, a new more efficient computer, and a refurbished Fine Guidance Sensor. Functional checks and tests of the hardware indicate that the new equipment is working well.
The space-walking team, including arm operator Clervoy, also took a break from their duties to discuss the progress of the mission so far in a series of interviews with CNN, the Associated Press and the Fox News Network.
The crew is scheduled to go to bed just before midnight Central time and wake up at 7:50 a.m. Sunday to begin a day of preparations for Monday's landing. Discovery is in a 363 by 380 statute mile orbit with all systems on board performing well.
The next status report will be issued at 11 a.m. Sunday or as events warrant.
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