Following a flawless final countdown, Space Shuttle Columbia lifted off at 12:22:02 p.m. CET today on the STS-109 mission to service the ESA/NASA Hubble Space Telescope. Columbia ascended through a scattered cloud layer on the start of an 11-day mission that includes five challenging spacewalks.

STS-109 is the fourth servicing mission for the Hubble Space Telescope since it was first launched in 1991. The purpose of this mission is to upgrade Hubble’s systems and to install new and more powerful instruments that will greatly increase Hubble’s discovery capabilities and extend the life span of the observatory.

The Hubble Space Telescope, a joint ESA and NASA project, has already made some of the most dramatic discoveries in the history of astronomy. From its vantage point 600 km above the Earth, Hubble can detect light before it is distorted by the atmosphere with ‘eyes’ 10 times sharper than the largest ground-based telescopes.

For the first two days of the mission, the Shuttle crew will chase the Hubble Space Telescope for rendezvous on Sunday. This will involve Mission Specialist Nancy Currie using Columbia’s robotic arm to capture the telescope. The rendezvous will set the stage for five consecutive days of servicing spacewalks starting on Monday morning.

Astronauts John Grunsveld, Rick Linnehan, Jim Newman and Mike Massimino will perform spacewalks in pairs on alternating days, providing each team with a day to rest between ventures outside the Shuttle. From inside Columbus, Nancy Currie will operate the robotic arm on the end of which, poised on a foot platform, one of the spacewalkers will work most of the time.

Today’s launch was the first for Columbia since July 1999, following a 2 1/2 year modification period in which many of its systems were replaced and enhanced. The launch, originally planned for Thursday, was delayed by 24 hours due to cold weather.

Columbia is scheduled to land at KSC, Florida, 12 March 2002 at 10:35 am CET.