The U.S. space shuttle Columbia has captured the Hubble Space Telescope, and astronauts are preparing to renovate the observatory.
After a two-day chase, Columbia approached the Hubble very slowly, and astronaut Nancy Currie extended the 15-meter robot arm to pluck the telescope out of its orbit. Commander Scott Altman confirmed the maneuver to mission control in Houston, Texas, and Hubble flight controllers half a continent away at the space agency's Goddard Space Flight Center near Washington.
"There is a big sigh of relief we heard from Goddard all the way up here," reported Houston mission control.
Within an hour of the capture, the observatory was latched down in the shuttle's cargo bay, with its flexible solar arrays rolled up and ready for replacement Monday and Tuesday by two pairs of spacewalking astronauts.
Hubble program manager Preston Burch says a quick television view of the telescope shows no obvious physical problems have occurred since the last servicing mission in December, 1999. "It is always a very exciting time for us on the ground to see Hubble come into view from out in the distance as we approach it," said Mr. Burch, who pronounced the orbiting observatory "in excellent shape."
On Monday, astronauts John Grunsfeld and Rick Linnehan will venture outside the shuttle to replace Hubble's old port side solar array with a new one, a task to be repeated on the other side during Tuesday's second spacewalk by Jim Newman and Michael Massamino.
Unlike the old solar wings, the new ones are rigid, smaller, and more powerful, causing less drag on the observatory and providing enough electricity to power all of Hubble's instruments at once.
Later in the week, the astronauts will install a new generator to distribute the power, a new gyroscope to aim Hubble at its targets, and a new camera to boost the observatory's visual strength by 10 times. The visual improvement will allow it to see closer to the edge of the universe and, in essence, further back in time.
Shuttle managers gave Columbia's mission a reprieve on Saturday when they decided a problem with the cooling system was not serious enough to abort it. Debris in one of two redundant cooling systems reduced the flow of Freon refrigerant that dissipates orbiter heat during the excess atmospheric friction of launch and re-entry. But engineers decided the flow was sufficient and stable enough to allow the flight to continue.
Mission official Wayne Hale says the freon system is "doing very well," describing it as "rock solid."