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Astronauts Prepare to Install $101M Camera into Hubble

By Robert Lee Hotz
Los Angeles Times

HOUSTON

After outfitting the Hubble Space Telescope with new solar-energy panels Monday, astronauts prepared to tackle the most crucial phase of the repair mission -- and one of NASA's most embarrassing mistakes -- the flawed optics that prevent the $1.5 billion observatory from living up to its promise.

If the work planned for late Monday and Tuesday night is successful, the Hubble for the first time will have a clear, unobstructed view of the universe.

In the mission's third arduous excursion outside the space shuttle this week, payload commander F. Story Musgrave and mission specialist Jeffrey A. Hoffman were scheduled Monday night to install a $101 million camera built by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Its advanced sensors will allow the Hubble to peer deeper into ultraviolet wavelengths hidden to astronomers on Earth and enable them to explore the origins of the cosmos.

Buoyed by the astronauts' success so far, NASA officials said Monday that Endeavour's seven-member crew have proved that people can service and rebuild satellites in orbit, validating an important idea underlying the design of the space station and other structures NASA hopes one day to maintain in space for decades.

"It is clear we can service the Hubble; we've now done it," said Edward J. Weiler, Hubble project scientist at NASA's Office of Space Sciences. "Now we have to see whether we can get the Hubble up to the telescope we promised the American people 3 years ago.

"Now we start fixing the science," he said.

Astronauts Musgrave and Hoffman, making their second overnight spacewalk of the 11-day mission, were expected to remove the original camera from the Hubble and place it in the shuttle's cargo bay for return to Earth. They would then install its wedge-shaped 629-pound replacement by sliding it into the empty service bay like a bureau drawer.

In the crucial step, they had to remove a bright red protective cover from the mirror that directs light from the telescope's main beam into the camera. If they accidentally touch the exposed mirror, they could throw the optics out of alignment or ruin its reflecting surface.

While most Americans slept early Monday, mission specialists Kathryn C. Thornton and Thomas D. Akers replaced the 39-foot solar panels that supply the Hubble with electricity, talking each other through their checklists in a flow of amiable chatter.

One defective panel, twisted and bent during its 3{ years in space, could not be rolled up for storage, a contingency mission planners had predicted and rehearsed. NASA flight directors abandoned plans to bring it back to Earth for study and told Thornton to jettison it. As Endeavour passed into sunrise over southern Egypt, she stood on the end of the shuttle's mechanical arm and carried the bent panel aloft and released it, then dropped both hands simultaneously in a flourish worthy of a circus rider.

Tumbling gently in Endeavour's exhaust, the broad rectangular blanket of plastic began to flex, flapping like it had wings as it moved into the distance.

NASA officials watching from the Johnson Space Center were transfixed by the sight.

"There are images that are burned into your brain for your life," said Hubble senior scientist David S. Leckrone of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "The mythic, Wagnerian image of Kathryn Thornton holding the solar array up toward the rising sun is something I'll never forget."