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Sunday, 3 March, 2002, 18:33 GMT
Columbia captures Hubble telescope
Robotic arm hooks up with Hubble, AFP
Plucked from orbit at five miles a second
An astronaut wielding a 15-metre-long robotic arm grabbed the Hubble Space Telescope from its orbit on Sunday and secured it to the American space shuttle Columbia.

The success of the operation brought a collective sigh of relief at mission control back on Earth after hitches nearly aborted the Columbia orbiter's 11-day mission.

Houston, we have Hubble on our arm

Scott Altman
Columbia commander
The four-storey observatory will now be serviced and upgraded over five days of space walks.

Mission control gave the go-ahead for the grab on Saturday after deciding that a problem with a radiator line would not after all interfere with the shuttle's work.

It broke the good news to the crew to the music from the spy film Mission Impossible.

Nancy Currie (from right) with fellow astronauts John Grunsfeld and Scott Altman, AP
Currie: Long experience with robotic arm
"Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to rendezvous and grapple the Hubble Space Telescope and then spend five days massively re-outfitting and upgrading the telescope," controllers said in the tongue-in-cheek message, adding that the tape would "self-destruct in five seconds".

It fell to Nancy Currie, a US Army helicopter pilot, to wield the robotic arm as both the shuttle and telescope moved at a speed of eight kilometres a second about 580 kilometres above the Pacific Ocean southwest of Mexico.

The astronaut previously notched up two triumphs with the robotic arm when she joined the first two modules of the International Space Station.

"Houston, we have Hubble on our arm," the shuttle commander, Scott Altman, announced to mission control.

Blockage fears

Columbia blasted off on its 11-day mission on Friday but ground controllers soon detected a blockage in a radiator line used to cool the shuttle's electronics system.

It is believed the blockage may be debris from a welding job carried out during the shuttle's recent overhaul.

Hubble history
1977 - Project begins
1985 - Hubble built
1990, 24 April - Hubble launched
1990, 18 May - First light
1993, December - Flawed mirror corrected
1997, February - Second servicing mission
1999, December - Emergency service to repair gyroscopes
2002, March - Repairs not done in 1999
2010 - End of Hubble mission
Problems may arise, however, when the shuttle re-enters the Earth's atmosphere on its return.

Even before the positive decision, Commander Altman said he and his crew were "charging ahead full speed with our eyes on the goal".

"We're letting the smart folks on the ground really worry for us," said fellow astronaut John Grunsfeld.

The 12-year-old orbiting Hubble observatory has taken some astonishing pictures of deep space and is expected to do even better after its upgrade.

Columbia lift-off, AP
The shuttle is on an 11-day mission
The Columbia crew must fit Hubble with a new camera, solar wings, a power-control unit, a steering mechanism and a refrigerator system that should allow scientists to use an infrared camera.

The most daunting part of the mission - currently set for 5 March - will be to fit the new power unit.

Astronauts will have to switch the telescope off and Nasa cannot guarantee that it will be able to switch it back on again.

The BBC's David Chazan
"Astronauts will fit a new camera to make Hubble perform 10 times better"

See also:

02 Mar 02 | Sci/Tech
Nasa gives Hubble mission go-ahead
02 Mar 02 | Sci/Tech
Hitch threatens Hubble mission
28 Feb 02 | Sci/Tech
High hopes for new Hubble camera
14 Apr 00 | Sci/Tech
Ten years of Hubble science
14 Apr 00 | Sci/Tech
Hubble's vision is blurred
14 Apr 00 | Sci/Tech
Building the first space telescope
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