Frank Summers, an astronomer and outreach scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, said the mission will be like upgrading a computer's motherboard, memory and power.
"You feel like you've got a whole new computer, even though the chassis and the box and the monitor stay the same," he said. "We do the same with Hubble. The barrel, the mirrors and the basic stuff stay the same, but we swap out the electronics on the back end that process the light."It's a fitting evolution for the telescope, which is a scientific instrument first and foremost, Summers said.
"Hubble is not meant to be our Instamatic camera in space," he said. "It's meant to extract science from these images ... It's designed to see what the human eye can't see."
COS will do that better than other spectrographs because it's designed to process light more efficiently. Scientists won't know until it's installed, but it will be between 10 and 30 times more efficient than Hubble's currently defunct Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph, Shull said.
Telescope time on Hubble is broken up by orbits, and COS' high efficiency will accomplish in one orbit what used to take 20 orbits. This makes scientists happy, especially when they have 550 orbits to use, like Shull does. They can use fewer orbits to see the same objects, or they can look at much fainter objects.
"We're looking to get really great data, high-signal data, in much less time," Shull said.
Astronauts also plan to fix STIS, which stopped working in 2004. If astronauts can fix it, the two spectrographs will provide a full set of space prisms.
Shull -- whose connection to Hubble goes back to his PhD. thesis adviser, Lyman Spitzer, who first proposed a space telescope in 1946 -- said studying cosmic origins would not be possible without an observatory like Hubble.
"That's why we love Hubble," he said. "I think it will be very exciting for the next five years."single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.