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.
The international space station also is watching a different piece of debris at its lower altitude that has a slight chance of coming close on Friday.
The shuttle already has an ugly stretch of nicks from Monday’s launch, but the damage is considered minor and poses no safety threat. NASA continued to prep another shuttle, though, just in case Atlantis is damaged and the crew needs to be rescued.
Mission Control told astronauts that engineers determined Atlantis’ heat shield was in such good shape that no extra inspection would be needed next week.
Flight controllers gasped when the telescope that had been in orbital solitude for seven years 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.
Going into the mission, Hubble scientists and managers warned that the telescope might look a little ragged because it hasn’t had a tuneup since 2002. Initial observations showed nothing major.
“Everybody’s very excited up here, I can tell you,” said Grunsfeld, who will venture out today with Andrew Feustel. They will replace an old Hubble camera that’s the size of a baby grand piano, and a science data-handling unit that failed in September and delayed Atlantis’ flight by seven months.