Trouble with the $150 million Astro observatory Monday delayed Columbia astronauts' probe of some of the hottest spots in the universe.

NASA officials had trouble calibrating the observatory's instrument pointing system - which affects all three telescopes - and also had problems with a computer that controls the movements of one telescope.Mission scientist Gene Urban at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., remained confident.

"The mission is poised to do extremely good science. We are in an extremely good orbit and three of the experiments (telescopes) have been activated almost completely," he said early Monday.

Columbia blasted into orbit early Sunday on a mission that was originally scheduled to fly in 1986 but was postponed by the Challenger explosion. Hydrogen leaks forced three launch delays earlier this year, and a telescope problem halted a fourth countdown.

Columbia's crew, finally in orbit after a six-month delay, spent most of the day Sunday testing the three ultraviolet telescopes that will be aimed at quasars, stars and other high-energy objects during the 10-day mission.

Although the astronauts hoped to make their first scientific observations early Monday, ground controllers first had to fix a computer that controls the movements of one telescope.

Controllers were reluctant to rely completely on a backup system, said NASA spokesman Bob Lessels.

The mission is the first shuttle flight in five years dedicated solely to scientific research. Columbia's flight also is the third mission in as many months - a pace the shuttle program has not achieved since 1985.

"We were so used to not getting it off, the idea that it's actually been launched and it's up there orbiting the Earth is amazing," said Arthur Davidsen of Johns Hopkins University, principal investigator for one of the telescopes.


(Additional information)

Perfect Soviet liftoff

A Soviet rocket rode a column of fire into orbit in a picture-perfect launch Sunday, carrying two cosmonauts and a Japanese television reporter who became the first journalist in space. The liftoff - which also launched a Soviet effort to commercialize their space program - was right on schedule, under bright, sunny skies on the remote Central Asian steppes of Kazakhstan. Journalist Toyohiro Akiyama, 48, joined Soviet cosmonauts Viktor Afanasyev and Musa Manarov in the Soyuz TM-11 space capsule. Akiyama was a passenger under a $12 million contract between the Soviet Union and Japan's biggest private television company, TBS.