The delicate equipment to refurbish the 18-year-old Hubble Space Telescope has begun arriving at Kennedy Space Center, presenting payload managers with one of their greatest challenges.
The gear includes spare parts for failing components, two new instruments, six gyroscopes and six, 125-pound (57 kg) batteries. The nearly 2,500 pounds (1,133 kg) of electronics will fill four pallets, each of which must be provided electrical power and climate control.
"On this particular mission we are carrying more flight hardware to orbit than any other of the previous (Hubble) missions," said Hubble Observatory Manager Thomas Griffin, whose team is responsible for installing the instruments onto the carriers.
Astronauts have visited Hubble four times to make repairs since it was launched in 1990.
This payload is light compared with the 32,000-pound (14,514 kg) Kibo module that shuttle Discovery took to the International Space Station in May. However, Atlantis must climb to an orbit of nearly 360 miles (579 km), much higher than the station at approximately 220 miles (354 km).
Each piece of equipment for the Hubble must be tested at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, shipped to KSC, attached to its pallet and loaded into the shuttle payload canister.
Pallets began arriving, the first of 16 shipments to KSC. The shipments end Sept. 4, only one month before the launch.
"Every week we bring another flight element here, process it and get it ready," Griffin said. "Everything's not coming at the same time, so we can focus the individual hardware team on a particular element.
"The schedule is well thought out and paced," Griffin said. "A good analogy is building a vehicle at an auto assembly plant."
As the observatory manager, Griffin is eager to see what the Hubble Space Telescope will produce with new cameras that improve resolution by 15 to 35 times. Hubble's spectacular views of faraway galaxies will be even more detailed.
"It's great to see it all come together," he said. "The (new) cameras are going to provide orders of magnitude improvement.
"Who knows the science we'll get from the upgraded Hubble. We've always been surprised."
Though loading the instruments into the payload canister without damage is crucial, the intense care continues all the way to the launch pad.
"The complexities of the interfaces and the criticality are much greater with the Hubble than with the space station payloads," NASA payload manager Deborah Hahn said.
Hahn's team will care for the Hubble equipment once it's loaded into the shuttle payload canister, where its temperature and condition will be monitored.
"There's a lot more data to review and understand," she said.
At the pad, the four pallets will be loaded into the shuttle at once, with four sets of power and data cables to hook up in the shuttle payload bay.
"The closeouts are a little more involved," Hahn said. Ground support equipment, such as air conditioners and generators, won't be removed from the launch pad until just before launch.
"It'll be very late in the countdown," Hahn said. "We're going out to the pad a month before launch. Right up to the last minute, they'll be doing battery charging.
"Basically, we're getting out just before the payload door closing starts."
Atlantis will be rolled out to Pad 39A on Aug. 29, and Endeavour will be moved to Pad 39B to be ready to act as a rescue craft. Hubble orbits about 150 miles (241 km) above the space station, too far for Atlantis to seek safe harbor there in an emergency.
Even if all goes well with loading the parts, Atlantis with its delicate cargo will be on the launch pad during September, which makes the shuttle vulnerable to bad weather that might delay the Oct. 8 launch.
"What we're dreading right now is a hurricane," Hahn said. "That is because of being in the flow (and) having two orbiters at the pad. We're very concerned."
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