Their restoration of the Hubble Space Telescope completed, the space shuttle Discovery’s astronauts aimed for a rare nighttime shuttle landing here at 10:50 p.m. PST Thursday.
Only eight of the 81 previous shuttle flights have ended in darkness. At astronauts’ request, NASA recently installed 52 halogen lights down the middle of the 15,000-foot runway to make nighttime landings safer.
The seven Discovery astronauts left Hubble behind with sharper eyes, a better brain and balance, and extra thermal skin. A record-tying fifth spacewalk was required to patch peeling insulation on the telescope; permanent repairs will be made during the next service call in three years.
The crew also boosted Hubble into a 385-mile-high orbit during the 10-day mission, the highest the telescope, or a space shuttle, has ever flown.
Steven Hawley, the crew’s lone astronomer, expects the next eight to 10 weeks to go slowly as ground controllers calibrate each Hubble instrument one by one. NASA hopes to release the first images in early May.