Astronauts pluck Hubble Telescope from orbit

By Irene Klotz

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

Commander Scott Altman maneuvered 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).

"An old man of 19 years in space (Hubble) still looks in fantastic shape," mission specialist John Grunsfeld, who has seen the iconic, bus-sized telescope on two previous missions, told NASA's Houston control room.

The mission is the U.S. space agency's last chance to tinker with Hubble, which has vastly expanded scientists' knowledge of the universe, before NASA ends the shuttle program in 2010.

Astronauts will venture into space on Thursday for the first of five spacewalks to make repairs and add equipment.

NASA hopes the improvements will keep Hubble operational until at least 2014, allowing it to work with its replacement, the James Webb Space Telescope.

There were "audible gasps of elation" from NASA engineers and scientists in the control room as they saw live television footage of Hubble for the first time since 2002, said Jon Morse, NASA's chief astrophysicist.

NASA had planned to return for a fifth servicing call about five years ago, but the destruction of the shuttle Columbia, which was incinerated as it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere in 2003, derailed those plans.

The mission was restored after engineers formed a plan to rescue Atlantis if it suffered damage similar to that blamed for the Columbia disaster, which killed seven crew members.

A second shuttle is poised to lift off from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida if the astronauts cannot get home using the Atlantis, which is too far from the International Space Station for the crew to seek refuge there in an emergency.

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

No more inspections will be needed, freeing the seven-member crew to focus on fixing Hubble, the agency said.

During their spacewalks the astronauts plan to outfit Hubble with a new wide-field camera, a light-splitting spectrograph and other gear and to fix two broken cameras.

"This is our highest priority science instrument," Morse said, referring to the new wide-field camera. "Its' capabilities are incredible and we expect a huge amount of science to come out of it."

Astronauts will have to take care not to disturb a small cloud of debris that has gathered inside the ship's payload bay which could harm the telescope's sensitive instruments, said LeRoy Cain, deputy shuttle program manager.

(Additional reporting by Chris Baltimore, Editing by Tom Brown and Paul Simao)

Article Published: 13/05/2009