NASA 'elated' as shuttle captures Hubble telescope

Space shuttle Atlantis crew getting ready for mission's first spacewalk on Thursday

With the Hubble Space Telescope safely tucked into the payload bay of the space shuttle Atlantis, the crew is now getting ready for their first spacewalk tomorrow to begin repairing and upgrading the orbiter.

"After 19 years, it still looks to be in amazing shape," said Jon Morse, astrophysics division director during a press conference this afternoon. "There was such a feeling of elation. It was truly a wonderful sight ... the telescope on the end of the grapple arm with the Earth in the background. It was an amazing sight."

The space shuttle caught up to the telescope, which was launched in 1990, as it orbited 350 miles above the Earth's surface around noon EDT today. Once the shuttle closed in on Hubble, the crew worked to maneuver the vehicle in a sort of outer space dance so it aligned up perfectly with the space telescope. At that point, astronaut Megan McArthur used the shuttle's 52-foot robotic arm to grab hold of the telescope and gently pull it into the Atlantis payload bay.

"Houston, Hubble has arrived onboard," an astronaut reported soon after the telescope was safely stowed. "Nice job, Megan," came the reply from Mission Control.

The telescope, which has changed the way astronomy is taught because of its discoveries, will be held inside the bay for the duration of the crew's repair mission. The telescope will be able to rotate on a sort of high-tech lazy Susan called a Flight Support System, giving astronauts easier access to different areas on the orbiter during the planned five spacewalks.

As of 3 p.m. EDT today, the crew was using cameras fixed on the robotic arm to inspect the outside of the Hubble. It was last serviced in 2002.

The space shuttle Atlantis blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center on Monday afternoon. This week's shuttle mission -- the last one going to the Hubble -- is expected to give the orbiter at least another five years of life, according to the space agency.

While the shuttle was making its way toward Hubble yesterday, NASA announced that multiple dings were found in critical tiles on the shuttle's outer heat shield. Scratches were found on the forward part of the shuttle's right wing, close to where it connects to the fuselage. NASA has said the damage appears to be minor but they are continuing to investigate it.

The shuttle is carrying 22,500 pounds of equipment for the telescope, including new grapple hooks and a platform that can be used in case future missions go up to service the telescope. This will be the shuttle's last trip to Hubble though, since the NASA space shuttles are scheduled to be retired next year.

This week's mission includes plans to install new gyroscopes, circuit boards and critical camera systems. The NASA astronauts are also bringing up a new backup computer system to replace an onboard backup system that had to be put into use last fall when Hubble's main system failed, leaving the orbiter unable to do much of its scientific work. NASA engineers made the remote switchover to a backup system from a room in the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., while the telescope hurtled along its orbit around Earth at 17,500 mph.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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