Hubble, Hubble, Toil And Trouble

NASA shuttle blasts off on Hubble life-saving mission

While the Hubble Space Telescope was making some pre-shutdown observations today, the space shuttle Atlantis blasted off on a repair mission to the 19-year-old orbiter.

At precisely 2:01 p.m. ET, the shuttle lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida (see video) amid a plume of fire and smoke.

The seven-astronaut crew this afternoon began its 11-day mission to repair and upgrade the Hubble telescope, which is orbiting about 350 miles above Earth. The shuttle mission — the last one going to the Hubble — is expected to give the orbiter at least another five years of life, according to the space agency.

About nine minutes after liftoff, Atlantis’ three main engines were cut off as the space shuttle entered orbit. Its external fuel tank was jettisoned.

The shuttle is scheduled to rendezvous with Hubble on Wednesday, when mission specialist Mike Massimino will use the shuttle’s robotic arm to reach out and grab the orbiter and pull it into the shuttle’s payload bay. On Thursday, two astronauts will make the first of the mission’s five spacewalks.

The shuttle is carrying 22,500 pounds of equipment for the telescope, including new grapple hooks and a platform that can be used in case future missions go up to service the telescope. This will be the shuttle’s last trip to Hubble though, since the NASA space shuttles are scheduled to be retired next year.

This week’s mission includes plans to install new gyroscopes, circuit boards and critical camera systems. The NASA astronauts are also bringing up a new backup computer system to replace an onboard backup system that had to be put into use last fall when the main system failed, leaving the Hubble unable to do much of its scientific work. NASA engineers made the remote switchover to a backup system from a room in the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., while the telescope hurtled along its orbit around Earth at 17,500 mph.

See also:
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This is easily the most complex and dangerous shuttle mission ever attempted. So dangerous that, for the first time ever, NASA took the precaution of having another shuttle, Endeavor/STS-127, on the pad, ready to luanch in case of trouble.

Set for launch today, Atlantis has plans to skirt debris

Conditions appear favorable for Atlantis to begin its mission to repair and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope today — a journey that is expected to include several measures to ensure that the space shuttle avoids any collision with dangerous space debris.

On Sunday NASA officials declared the vehicle ready to go, and predicted just a 10 percent chance of weather conditions precluding a launch.

“We’re not tracking any issues and Atlantis is ready to fly,” said NASA Test Director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson.

NASA technicians filled Atlantis’ fuel tanks early this morning in preparation for a 1:01 p.m. launch from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.

Once they’re in orbit, the seven-member crew will carry out a carefully crafted evasive maneuver to cut the risk of collision space debris during the 11-day flight.

The debris has been sown by a surprise satellite collision in February, a Chinese anti-satellite test in 2007, and decades of deteriorating space hardware.

The estimated 19,000 pieces of orbiting debris from damaged and destroyed space vehicles could inflict catastrophic damage on a spacecraft.

Nicholas Johnson, NASA’s chief scientist for orbital debris at Johnson Space Center, says collisions with space debris are “not something you really need to lose sleep over but it is something that we need to be pro-active about.” In this case, pro-active will mean the shuttle will drop from the altitude of the Hubble some 350 miles above the Earth to a safer orbit 160 miles above the Earth as soon the five spacewalks are completed for the Hubble phase of the mission.

In addition, the shuttle is packing twice the normal 12-day supply of provisions to sustain the crew in the event that the orbiter is damaged, forcing the crew to shelter within a crippled spacecraft.

And in an unprecedented move, NASA has positioned shuttle Endeavor on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center to serve as a rescue vehicle in the event of problems.

See also:
Hubble mission especially dangerous
Nasa launches ‘most dangerous shuttle mission yet’ to fix Hubble telescope
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Debris Collision Risk for Atlantis ‘Within Limits’
Space Junk Forcing More Evasive Maneuvers

And, keep in mind that Hubble was never designed to be repaired or serviced in the first place, let alone in space, and the shuttle astronauts have to dodge space debris while they’re attempting the repairs! Not only is it like trying to conduct delicate brain surgery in a pressurized space suit, it’s like trying to conduct delicate brain surgery in a pressurized space suit, while tethered to a fast moving car, traveling the wrong direction on a busy freeway!

/good luck STS-125 and Godspeed!