Johns Hopkins University astronomers and Baltimore astronaut Sam Durrance were trying to keep their emotions bolted down today as NASA continued its countdown for Sunday's planned launch of the Hopkins Ultraviolet Telescope aboard the shuttle Columbia.
"We're trying to avoid getting too excited. . . . We know there are things that can go wrong," says Arthur F. Davidsen, a Hopkins astronomer and principal investigator for HUT.
Things "going wrong" have made this shuttle mission the most delayed in the history of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Originally slated for launch in 1986, it was postponed 4 1/2 years by the Challenger explosion, and again in May, August and September of this year by shuttle fuel leaks and a communications failure.
The telescope is one of four to be launched aboard Columbia on Sunday as part of the 10-day, all-science Astro Observatory mission. Liftoff for the $148 million observatory is scheduled for 1:28 a.m.
Durrance, 47, a Hopkins research scientist who lives with his wife and two children in Lutherville, will operate HUT as part of Columbia's seven-man crew.
HUT is to search the skies in the ultraviolet band of the light spectrum, which is invisible from the ground, and at UV frequencies higher than those visible to the Hubble Space Telescope.
Davidsen says the three-month launch delay caused by Columbia's last fuel leak, in September, has had a silver lining for the HUT project, making possible at least three important observations that would have been impossible in September:
* Quasar 3C273 -- One of the most luminous objects in the universe, this object radiates far more energy than the entire Milky Way galaxy, all from a single object, 3 billion light-years away and no bigger than our solar system.
Davidsen's team has scheduled a series of observations designed to test the theory that the giant quasar is a titanic black hole more massive than 100 million suns, and that its energy is generated by the friction of stellar material that is being sucked into the black hole from a surrounding galaxy. Too close to the sun to be observed in September, this quasar moved into view again earlier this month.
* Jupiter -- The solar system's biggest planet has also come back into view since September. Davidsen's team has reprogrammed HUT to study the "Io torus," a doughnut-shaped ring of electrically charged material around Jupiter that has been spewed into space by active volcanoes on Io, one of Jupiter's moons.
* Dark matter -- HUT has also been reprogrammed to test a new theory just emerging among astronomers about the nature of so-called invisible "dark matter" in the universe.