Astronauts Grab Hubble Telescope for Tune-Up
A camera on the shuttle Atlantis shows the Hubble Space Telescope after astronauts plucked it from space on May 13, 2009 during the STS-125 mission.
Credit: NASA TV

This story was updated at 1:59 p.m. EDT.

HOUSTON - Astronauts aboard the shuttle Atlantis grabbed the Hubble Space Telescope in a robotic embrace Wednesday, setting the stage for an ambitious five-spacewalk marathon of upgrades and repairs.

Atlantis and its crew of seven astronauts latched onto Hubble with the shuttle?s robotic arm at 1:14 p.m. EDT (1714 GMT) while flying about 350 miles (563 km) above Australia. They are the first visitors at iconic space telescope in seven years.

?Houston, Atlantis, Hubble has arrived onboard Atlantis in the arm!? said Atlantis skipper Scott Altman, who commanded NASA?s last Hubble visit in 2002. ?Everybody?s very excited up here, I can tell ya.?

Atlantis astronaut Megan McArthur plucked Hubble out of space while the orbiter was just 35 feet (10 meters) from the space observatory in what is likely the last time a shuttle will be used to grab onto an unmanned satellite. She parked the four-story space telescope on a turntable-like stand in the shuttle?s cargo bay so it can be inspected and repaired.

NASA expected the 19-year-old Hubble to look a bit haggard after seven years without regular maintenance flights. But the astronauts said the telescope looked great.

?I am just looking out the window here, and it?s an unbelievably beautiful sight,? said astrophysicist-astronaut John Grunsfeld, who is making his third trip to Hubble. ?Amazingly, the exterior of Hubble, an old man of 19 years in space, still looks in fantastic shape.?

Grunsfeld and fellow Atlantis astronaut Michael Massimino flew to Hubble, which weighs almost 13 tons and is the size of a school bus, with Altman in 2002.

With Hubble at last

Altman and his crew launched toward Hubble on Monday and are flying NASA?s fifth and final mission to overhaul the space telescope. It?s a much-needed service call. Hubble has been suffering from broken instruments and aging hardware in recent years.

The astronauts will begin the first of five complicated spacewalks on Thursday to install two new cameras, replace some telescope basics like batteries and gyroscopes, and attempt unprecedented repairs to two instruments that were never designed to be fixed in space.

NASA has no guarantees the repair attempts will work, but Hubble scientists have high hopes for Atlantis? spacewalking handymen. If everything goes well, the mission will extend Hubble?s life through at least 2014 and boost its vision to peer deeper into the universe.

?It?s a very complex, very ambitious mission,? said David Leckrone, Hubble?s senior project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., which manages the telescope. ?It makes the difference between an observatory that?s kind of limping along and an observatory that?s going to be the best ever.?

The 11-day service call costs about $1.1 billion. NASA and Europe have invested nearly $10 billion in Hubble since its conception and 1990 launch.

NASA initially cancelled the Atlantis crew?s mission in 2004, a year after the tragic Columbia disaster, because of its risk. The mission was reinstated two years later, then delayed nearly seven months when a vital data handling unit broke on Hubble last year. Astronauts plan to replace the key component during Tuesday?s spacewalk.

The risk at Hubble

Atlantis and its crew are at a higher risk from space junk while working at Hubble. The region is littered with more orbital debris than the 220-mile (354-km) high realm of the International Space Station, which is out of reach for the shuttle crew because of Hubble?s higher altitude and unique orbit.

As a precaution, NASA has another shuttle - Endeavour - primed to launch a rescue mission if Atlantis is cannot return its astronauts home. NASA officials have said such a scenario is extremely unlikely.

Damage from space debris is one of the top risks during Atlantis?s mission. The shuttle has a 1-in-229 chance of suffering a critical blow. That?s a higher debris risk than on typical shuttle flights, but just within NASA?s flight rule limits, agency officials have said. Shuttle flights to the space station have a lower, 1-in-300 chance of a major strike, they added.

NASA plans to fly Atlantis in special attitudes to reduce the chance of severe strikes from debris and micrometeorites, and the shuttle will retreat to a safer orbit as soon as it leaves Hubble next week.

So far, the only damage to Atlantis are some minor dings in heat-resistant tiles on the edge of the forward fuselage near the front of the starboard wing. Astronauts spotted the slight scuffs in four tiles that spanned 21-inch (53-cm) long area. A piece of launch debris seen about 160 seconds after Atlantis is believed to be the cause.

The dings are not expected to be of any concern, but NASA image analysts are sifting through data from a Tuesday inspection of the shuttle to just to be sure. NASA has kept a close eye on shuttle heat shield health since the 2003 loss of seven astronauts aboard Columbia, which was severely damaged by launch debris.

A standard section inspection of Atlantis? heat shield is scheduled near the end of the spaceflight.

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