Space shuttle astronauts plucked the Hubble Space Telescope from orbit on Wednesday and anchored the observatory in their ship’s cargo bay for a long-overdue overhaul.
Commander Scott Altman manoeuvred the shuttle Atlantis to within about 10 metres of the telescope as crewmate Megan McArthur used the ship’s robot arm to latch on to the telescope.
“An old man of 19 years in space (Hubble) looks in fantastic shape,” mission specialist John Grunsfeld told NASA’s Houston control room.
The mission is the US space agency’s last chance to tinker with Hubble, which has vastly expanded scientists’ knowledge of the universe, before NASA ends the shuttle program in 2010.
Astronauts will venture into space on Thursday for the first of five spacewalks to make repairs and add equipment.
NASA hopes the improvements will keep Hubble operational until at least 2014, allowing it to work with its replacement, the James Webb Space Telescope.
There were “audible gasps of elation” from NASA engineers and scientists in the control room as they saw live television footage of Hubble for the first time since 2002, said Jon Morse, NASA’s chief astrophysicist.
NASA had planned to return for a fifth servicing call about five years ago, but the destruction of the shuttle Columbia, which was incinerated as it reentered the Earth’s atmosphere in 2003, derailed those plans.
The mission was restored after engineers formed a plan to rescue Atlantis if it suffered damage similar to that blamed for the Columbia disaster, which killed seven crew members.