Space shuttle Atlantis and seven astronauts blasted off on Monday on an ambitious 11-day mission to refurbish the Hubble Space Telescope.
The shuttle lifted off its seaside launch pad at 2:01 p.m. EDT, heading toward an orbit 563 km above the planet and a rendezvous on Wednesday with the Hubble telescope.
Once the telescope is anchored in the shuttle's cargo bay, spacewalking astronauts plan five consecutive days of work to install two new cameras, repair two other science instruments, replace Hubble's positioning gyroscopes and batteries and attach new thermal insulation.
NASA hopes that with the upgrades Hubble, which has cost about $10 billion so far, will last until at least 2014, at which time its replacement should be in orbit and operational.
Hubble's observations have been important in all areas of astronomical research, including the still-unexplained discovery that the universe is expanding at an increasingly faster rate and that galaxies formed quite early after the Big Bang explosion that created the universe 13.7 billion years ago.