Astronauts plucked the high-flying Hubble Space Telescope from orbit Wednesday, maneuvering it into the bay of the shuttle Atlantis for an ambitious spacewalking overhaul.
Astronaut Megan McArthur grappled the 13.2-meter long telescope with the shuttle's robot arm at 1714 GMT, after Atlantis commander Scott Altman maneuvered his spacecraft within 10 meters (35 feet) of the scientific icon.
"Houston, Atlantis, Hubble has arrived on board," Altman radioed Mission Control.
The two spacecraft sailed 560 kilometers (350 miles) above Australia at the time of the capture. After the grapple, McArthur carefully hoisted the observatory toward a rotating work platform in the rear of the shuttle's cargo bay.
The big telescope will remain anchored to the platform for the next six days.
Wednesday's rendezvous operation grew more challenging when a communications problem kept the Atlantis crew from seeing the results of positioning commands they transmitted to the telescope.
Hubble's Maryland command center monitored the commands instead, relaying the results to the astronauts.
The astronauts later scanned the Hubble's exterior with cameras on the robot arm, finding it in good shape despite signs of weathering from ultraviolet radiation and impacts from space debris.
"It's an unbelievably beautiful sight," gushed astronaut John Grunsfeld, an astronomer making his third trip to the space telescope. "Amazingly, the exterior of Hubble, an old man of 19 years in space, still looks in terrific shape."
Shuttle astronauts had not seen nor worked on Hubble since March 2002.
|In this image taken from NASA video, Hubble is captured by the space shuttle's robotic arm as Atlantis begins its mission to service the space telescope|
Early Thursday (1216 GMT), Grunsfeld, 50, will lead the first of five spacewalks intended to extend the life of the space telescope. Joining him will be Drew Feustel, a 43-year-old geologist on his first space mission.
Officials believe the overhaul will extend operations at least five years, long enough to finish the development and launch a more capable successor, the James Webb Space Telescope.
During a six- to seven-hour spacewalk, the two men will replace the Wide Field Planetary Camera-2, a 16-year-old workhorse imager, with the updated Wide Field Camera-3. The new camera was designed to look deeper into the universe with observations in the ultraviolet and infrared regions of the electromagnetic spectrum.
As their final task, Grunsfeld and Feustel, will replace the telescope's failing science computer. The Science Instrument Command and Data Handling system experienced a partial electronic failure in late September. The breakdown prompted NASA to postpone plans to launch the Hubble mission in October so engineers could prepare a replacement.
When the overhaul is complete, Hubble should have new batteries and gyroscopes, rejuvenating the electrical and pointing systems.
In Wednesday's rendezvous, Altman flew the final kilometer of the encounter manually, gingerly easing Atlantis closer to the telescope from below with the assistance of shuttle pilot Greg Johnson and Mike Good.
Meanwhile, mission managers hoped to complete an evaluation of damage to heat shielding tiles under the forward region of the shuttle's right wing. The damage was found during a 10-hour inspection of the shuttle's heat shielding the previous day.
The inspection by the astronauts using cameras and lasers attached to an inspection boom on the robot arm revealed a string of gouges, stretching 53 centimeters (21 inches) across four heat shielding tiles beneath the forward edge of the wing near the fuselage.
Tuesday, LeRoy Cain, who chairs NASA's mission management team, characterized the damage as minor and unlikely to pose a threat to the astronauts or their mission.