Rejuvenated Hubble ready to leave the shuttle today
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: May 19, 2009
Astronaut Megan McArthur, operating the shuttle Atlantis' robot arm, locked onto the 24,500-pound Hubble Space Telescope at 6:45 a.m. today as the crew geared up to unberth and release the upgraded observatory following a dramatic five-spacewalk overhaul, the telescope's fifth and final shuttle servicing.
A half hour later, around 9:30 a.m., shuttle commander Scott Altman plans to fire Atlantis' maneuvering rockets, leaving NASA's most successful science satellite behind for the last time.
For Atlantis' crew, flight controllers, Hubble scientists and engineers and uncounted fans of the space observatory around the world, release will make a bittersweet moment as the telescope recedes from view for the last time. With the shuttle program facing retirement after eight more space station assembly flights, no more Hubble visits are currently planned and no one will set eyes on the telescope again until a final mission, presumably robotic, sometime in the late teens or 2020s to drive it out of orbit.
"Certainly it's going to be for me, a very touching moment," said astronomer-astronaut John Grunsfeld, making his third Hubble house call. "When I first went to Hubble (in 1999), at the end of our three spacewalks, we deployed Hubble on Christmas Day, and I had very mixed feelings. I'd been working for a number of years on the Hubble project, had gone and done two spacewalks on that mission and felt like I'd just barely gotten to know the Hubble before we had to send it on its way. But it was a glorious Christmas present to everybody on planet Earth. It was a wonderful sight to watch it slowly drifting off on the Earth's horizon.
"I was privileged to go back again (in 2002) and I felt like I was visiting an old friend. I was convinced at the end of the last mission, as it floated away, that I would never get a chance to see the Hubble again but I knew somebody would. And of course that got thrown into disarray with the cancellation of the servicing mission on the shuttle, and so here I am, going back to visit an old friend, to give it a new life along with a team of some Hubble repeats, other Hubble huggers, and a new team.
"So I'm looking forward to that moment with some mixed emotions," he said. "But when we've successfully serviced the Hubble, with all of the things that we have on our plate, a very challenging mission and a very complex mission, when Hubble flies away I'm going to be very proud of the shuttle team that allowed us to go there and of the Hubble team that has come up with all of these fixes that will make Hubble just an incredible discovery machine."
Faced with certain doom in the wake of the 2003 Columbia disaster, when a final shuttle servicing flight was canceled because of safety concerns, Hubble won a new lease on life when former Administrator Mike Griffin reinstated Atlantis' mission after development of heat shield inspection and repair techniques.
Over the course of five back-to-back spacewalks, the Atlantis astronauts equipped Hubble with a powerful new $132 million camera, a new $88 million spectrograph, six new stabilizing gyroscopes, six fresh batteries, a refurbished fine guidance sensor and a new science data computer. The astronauts also pulled off two unprecedented repairs, bringing another camera and an imaging spectrograph back to life after failures in 2004 and 2007.
Hubble is now more scientifically powerful than at any point since launch in 1990 and with new gyros and batteries, it should remain operational for at least five more years and possibly more.
"I don't want to be provincial, but I truly believe this is a very important moment in human history and I think it's an important moment for science," said Hubble Project Scientist David Leckrone. "Just using what Hubble's already done as a starting point, it's unimaginable that we won't dramatically go further than that."
After Hubble is released, the astronauts will face a busy day of work inspecting the shuttle's reinforced carbon carbon nose cap, wing leading edge panels and heat shield tiles to make sure no damage has occurred from micrometeoroids or space debris since a similar inspection the day after launch.
The odds of a catastrophic impact from space debris are higher at Hubble's 350-mile-high altitude, on average about 1-in-229 compared to less than 1-in-300 for a typical space station flight at the lab's lower 220-mile-high altitude.
With Hubble safely on its way, Altman and pilot Gregory C. Johnson plan to carry out a rocket firing later this morning to lower one side of the shuttle's orbit to around 184 statute miles, reducing the risk of impact by about 15 percent.
Because Hubble operates in a different orbit from the International Space Station, the astronauts cannot seek "safe haven" aboard the lab complex if any major problems occur that might prevent a safe re-entry. As a result, the shuttle Endeavour is poised on pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center, already prepped for an emergency rescue mission if any non-repairable problems are found.
But the kind of damage that might require a rescue mission is more likely during launch than it is from impacts with small, albeit dangerous, pieces of space debris. Today's heat shield inspection is designed to spot any such damage. With post-Columbia repair tools on board, mission managers are confident any relatively minor damage could be repaired without needing a rescue flight.
The heat shield passed its initial inspections after launch, although a sensor behind wing leading edge panel No. 11 on the ship's right wing recorded a presumed impact during the early hours of the mission. But the data indicate the event was below the damage threshold requiring repairs.
Assuming no problems are found today, the astronauts will enjoy a day off Wednesday before packing up Thursday for the trip home.
Along with lowering the odds of debris impacts, today's orbit adjustment also will make it possible to bring Atlantis home one orbit earlier than originally planned, giving the crew three shots at a Florida landing Friday and improving the odds of getting home ahead of potentially threatening weather. The first landing opportunity will come 10:03 a.m. Friday.
Here is an updated timeline of today's activity (in EDT and mission elapsed time; includes revision H of the NASA television schedule):
EDT........DD...HH...MM...EVENT 05/19/09 03:26 AM...07...13...25...HST: SSR engineering playback 04:31 AM...07...14...30...Crew wakeup 06:01 AM...07...16...00...Group B computer powerup 06:16 AM...07...16...15...SRMS grapples HST 06:51 AM...07...16...50...HST power umbilical disconnect 07:11 AM...07...17...10...HST unberthing maneuver 07:36 AM...07...17...35...EVA prep 07:56 AM...07...17...55...HST release prep 08:11 AM...07...18...10...HST: Aperture door open 08:53 AM...07...18...52...HST release 08:54 AM...07...18...53...Separation burn No. 1 09:27 AM...07...19...26...Separation burn No. 2 09:51 AM...07...19...50...FSS stow 10:11 AM...07...20...10...Crew meals begin 11:02 AM...07...21...01...Orbit adjust rocket firing 11:11 AM...07...21...10...Group B computer powerdown 11:11 AM...07...21...10...SRMS unberths OBSS 12:51 PM...07...22...50...Starboard wing RCC survey 02:30 PM...08...00...29...Mission status briefing on NTV 02:31 PM...08...00...30...EVA tools stowed 02:41 PM...08...00...40...Nose cap survey 03:31 PM...08...01...30...Port wing RCC survey 05:46 PM...08...03...45...HST: 1st alignment 05:51 PM...08...03...50...OBSS ICC RCC survey 06:31 PM...08...04...30...LDRI downlinkn 08:31 PM...08...06...30...Crew sleep begins 09:00 PM...08...06...59...Daily highlights reel on NTV
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