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Atlantis Set to Rendezvous with Hubble


The crew of space shuttle Atlantis plans to grab hold of the Hubble Space Telescope with a robotic arm Wednesday, setting the stage for the orbiting observatory's final overhaul.

A two-day chase of the school bus-sized telescope is scheduled to end just before 1 p.m. EDT, when mission specialist Megan McArthur guides the arm to grab a fixture and tuck the Hubble into a shuttle cargo bay for the first time in seven years.

"I shouldn't say it's nothing difficult — two vehicles going 17,000 miles an hour — but it's been done before," said lead mission flight director Tony Ceccacci, expressing confidence in the maneuver expected to take place 340 miles above Madagascar.

Also Wednesday, the seven Atlantis astronauts should learn if they must take a closer look at parts of the shuttle's heat shields, which they spent most of Tuesday inspecting for damage with cameras and laser sensors attached to a 50-foot boom.

Analysts at Johnson Space Center in Houston were to review images overnight, including some showing a series of nicked tiles on a forward section of the right wing.

Debris apparently struck the area less than two minutes after Atlantis' launched from Kennedy Space Center on Monday afternoon.

The nicks were believed to be shallow and not serious, but Atlantis was having trouble beaming down pictures taken during the launch that could help determine the size and origin of the debris.

"Those tiles are pretty thick. The nicks look to be pretty small," spacecraft communicator Dan Burbank told mission commander Scott Altman from Houston. "Everybody is feeling pretty good that it's not something particularly serious."

"Appreciate the due diligence and working that," Altman replied.

The surveys of heat shields, which protect the shuttle during its fiery re-entry through Earth's atmosphere, are especially critical on this mission because the crew can't take shelter at the International Space Station if there's a problem.

The telescope's higher altitude also puts the 11-day mission at a greater risk of a deadly strike from space debris — a 1 in 229 chance, compared with roughly 1 in 300 odds for a space station mission.

Shuttle Endeavour sits on a launch pad ready for a possible rescue flight if Atlantis sustains damage that can't be repaired.

But managers said Tuesday that the early inspections suggest Endeavour is very unlikely to be called upon.

"The chances of that being necessary are exceedingly low," said LeRoy Cain, NASA's deputy shuttle program manager.

Atlantis will conduct another set of inspections before returning home, in case any space junk or micrometeoroids strikes the spaceship during the mission.

Once the telescope is safely captured, it too will be inspected for debris hits and wear and tear since its last visit by astronauts in 2002. Hubble has been in service since 1990.

On Thursday, the Atlantis crew hopes to start the first of five spacewalks planned on consecutive days. Spacewalkers will install new science instruments, repair broken ones and replace batteries and gyroscopes that could extend Hubble's life at least five more years.

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