CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Atlantis’ astronauts grabbed the Hubble Space Telescope on Wednesday, then quickly set their sights on the difficult, dangerous and unprecedented spacewalking repairs they will attempt over the next five days.
Hubble and Atlantis are flying in a 350-mile-high orbit littered with space junk. Some of that debris put a bit of a scare into NASA late Wednesday, when a 4-inch piece was spotted on a path coming close to the shuttle.
The debris did not hit the spacecraft and NASA had decided it didn’t need to move Atlantis out of the way.
Left over from the 2007 Chinese destruction of a satellite during a weapon test, the debris was predicted to come within 1.7 miles of Atlantis. Mission Control let it pass by without noting it.
Flight controllers gasped when the telescope that had been in orbital solitude for seven years first came into view.
“It’s an unbelievably beautiful sight,” reported John Grunsfeld, the telescope’s chief repairman. “Amazingly, the exterior of Hubble, an old man of 19 years in space, still looks in fantastic shape.”
NASA hopes to get another five to 10 years of dazzling views of the cosmos with all the planned upgrades, which should leave the observatory more powerful than ever.
Shuttle robot arm operator Megan McArthur used the 50-foot boom to seize the school bus-sized telescope as the two spacecraft sailed above Australia. Then she lowered the observatory into Atlantis’ payload bay, where cameras checked it out.