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Space shuttle grapples Hubble; dances with a star

By / May 13, 2009

A BLAST FROM THE PAST: A crewmember handles one of Hubble's wide-field and planetary cameras (WFPC) during the first Hubble repair mission in 1993. At that time, astronauts installed the Wide-Field and Planetary Camera 2. Tomorrow, Atlantis astronauts John Grunsfeld and Drew Feustel are scheduled to replace WFPC 2 with a more-capable WFPC 3.

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After a spectacular launch on Monday afternoon, Atlantis finally has reached out and grabbed the Hubble Space Telescope.

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The hook-up took place at about 1:15 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time. Now the clock starts ticking on a series of spacewalks for work that, if you had a choice, you'd probably rather do back on Earth in the shop. Astronauts spent some of yesterday getting space suits and tools ready for the work.

Beginning tomorrow, crew members will begin five consecutive days of fix-it tasks on the venerable observatory. Each spacewalk is slated to last about 6-1/2 hours. And the spacewalkers are likely to have little time to enjoy the view.

If all goes well, tomorrow's to-do list for spacewalkers John Grunsfeld and Drew Feustel looks something like this:

• Replace the telescope's wide-field and planetary camera. The duo will pull WFPC 2 out of Hubble, stow it, replace it with WFPC 3. WFPC 2 has generated some of Hubble's most memorable images. And it took the first of what will be three so-called deep-field surveys of the universe -- a look back at the universe when it was less than 2 billion years old. WFPC 3 will play a key role in survey No. 3. The survey is expected to capture images of the universe when it was only about 500 million years old.

• Replace a balky computer that acts as Hubble's Grand Central Station for data. The computer -- the Science Instrument Command and Data Handling Unit -- routes commands from the ground to the telescope and ships engineering  and science data back to Earth. This, plus the upgrade to the wide-field camera, are two of five jobs that represent the least the astronauts must accomplish to earn high-fives when they get back.

• Install new latches on some of the doors to the telescope's interior to speed the work on later repair spacewalks.

• As a "get ahead" task, Grunsfeld and Feustel also will install a soft-capture device on Hubble. This gives a spacecraft several years a spot it can use to grab the telescope and drag it to an orbit that would allow for its final spectacle -- a fiery demise as it reenters Earth' atmosphere.

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