Astronauts pluck Hubble Space Telescope from orbit

By Irene Klotz

HOUSTON (Reuters) - Space shuttle astronauts plucked the Hubble Space Telescope from orbit on Wednesday and tucked the observatory into their ship's cargo bay for a long-overdue overhaul.

Speeding through space, commander Scott Altman manoeuvred the shuttle Atlantis to within about 35 feet (10 meters) of the telescope as crewmate Megan McArthur used the ship's robot arm to latch on to the telescope at 1:14 p.m. EDT (6:14 p.m. British time) as the spacecraft soared far above Australia.

"Houston, Atlantis. Hubble has arrived onboard Atlantis," Altman radioed to Mission Control.

NASA last visited Hubble in 2002 and had planned to return for a fifth servicing call a couple of years later, but the destruction of the shuttle Columbia as it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere in 2003 derailed those plans.

The mission was restored after engineers came up with a rescue plan in case Atlantis suffered damage during launch like that blamed for the Columbia disaster, which killed its seven crew members.

A second shuttle is poised for liftoff from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida in case the astronauts need another ride home, as Atlantis is flying too far from the International Space Station for the crew to seek refuge there in case of an emergency.

Atlantis sustained no serious damage during its launch on Monday. Scratches across four heat shield tiles on the right wing that were discovered during an in-flight inspection on Tuesday are not considered a danger.

NASA said no additional inspections of the area would be needed, freeing the seven-member Atlantis crew to focus on the primary goal of their mission -- fixing up Hubble.

Three of the telescope's five science instruments are broken and it is using its last set of positioning gyroscopes, a backup computer for formatting data to relay to the ground and 19-year-old batteries that can only hold half a charge.

Without an upgrade, NASA would be hard-pressed to justify continuing telescope operations, project scientist David Leckrone said.

Astronauts plan five consecutive days of spacewalks to outfit Hubble with new imagers and other gear and to fix two of its broken cameras. Telescope operators also hope to resurrect an infrared camera after Hubble is released back into orbit.

If the refurbishments are successful, Hubble should be back in service in two to three months with an observation program even more ambitious than what it has accomplished since its debut in 1990.

Hubble has provided evidence of how planets are formed and contributed to the still-unexplained realization that the universe is expanding at an increasingly faster rate.

It also gave astronomers a front-row seat for watching a comet smash into Jupiter and made the first measurements of gases in the atmosphere of a planet in another solar system.

NASA hopes the improvements will keep Hubble operational until at least 2014 so it can work in tandem with its replacement, the James Webb Space Telescope.

The first spacewalk is scheduled for Thursday.

(Editing by Tom Brown and Patricia Zengerle)

Article Published: 13/05/2009