From here on out, the Hubble Space Telescope is on its own. Astronaut Megan McArthur released the mighty scope from space shuttle Atlantis's robotic arm at 8:57 A.M. (Eastern Daylight Time) today, marking the likely end of all direct human contact with Hubble.
The shuttle crew performed numerous repairs and upgrades in five spacewalks spanning nearly 37 hours, in the hope of extending the 19-year-old telescope's life for another five to 10 years. The space shuttle program is set to be phased out next year, a move that will leave the U.S. without a manned space-launch system until at least 2015, and another mission to Hubble is not planned.
"Hubble has been released," mission commander Scott Altman reported to Mission Control in Houston, according to the Orlando Sentinel. "Now Hubble can continue on its own, exploring the cosmos and bringing them to us, as we head for home in a few days."
The shuttle crew is scheduled to spend the afternoon re-inspecting Atlantis's heat shield in preparation for re-entry and landing Friday. Initial inspections a week ago showed some minor but insignificant nicking on the thermal-protection tiles along the shuttle's right side, according to NASA.
Photo of Atlantis's empty payload bay after Hubble's release: NASA TV