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Wed, Sep 10, 2008

Hubble Repair Mission Includes New Challenges, Increased Risks

Daunting Tasks Must Be Accomplished In VERY Hostile Environment

Astronauts preparing for the upcoming STS-125 mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope -- the last such flight ever to the orbital observatory -- have a daunting tasks ahead of them. Not only will they be performing some of the most complex tasks ever in the history of the shuttle program... but they'll be doing so in a decidedly unwelcoming neighborhood.

MSNBC reports astronauts working to repair, service, and replace components on the 18-year-old Hubble will be using over 60 new tools, specially created for the mission. "We had to develop a whole new class of tools for spacewalking," said astronaut John Grunsfeld, who will be making his third trip to the telescope onboard the shuttle Atlantis next month.

Among the most vital is the new "Mini Power Tool," a pistol-shaped combination screwdriver/drill that includes an LED diode at the tip to illuminate the telescope's inner circuitry. The tool will be used to swap out worn circuit boards inside the telescope's Advanced Camera for Surveys and the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph -- boards that "were basically never designed to be accessed," in the words of STS-125 lead spacewalker officer Tomas Gonzalez-Torres.

Accessing the spectrograph alone will require the removal of 117 tiny fasteners... and not losing them in zero-g, as just one loose screw could damage the telescope's delicate optics. Aiding spacewalkers' efforts will be specially-developed, color-coded, see-through panels that resemble a toddler's "busy boards," but will separate and capture the screws as they're removed. New, snap-on panels will then replace the old covers.

Another new tool was also inspired by more Earth-bound needs: the 'reach extender,' which resembles a commercial product called the "PikStik" that you can find at nearly any Wal-Mart... or, again, in a child's toolbox.

"That was the first thing that I had envisioned using on Hubble," said rookie astronaut Drew Feustel, who developed an industrial-strength version of the tool with Grunsfeld's help. It will be used to push the telescope's new gyros into place.

For inspiration, both Feustel and Mini Power Tool chief engineer Matt Ashmore drew on their experience tinkering with cars... and then designed special, on-orbit versions of many of the same tools found in a Snap-On toolbox. Feustel was once an automobile mechanic, while Ashmore often spends weekends working on his "baby," a 1969 Dodge Polara.

Of course, unlike the relative safety of a garage, STS-125 astronauts will be conducting their repairs in the hostile environment of space... and the mission parameters mean that astronauts will face a greater-than-usual risk of colliding with space debris.

Due to the Hubble's higher orbit, the shuttle will be exposed to far greater amounts of orbital debris than the low-Earth orbital environment where the International Space Station is parked. Adding to the danger is the recent destruction of a Chinese satellite, and an old Russia rocket.

"We've had some vehicle breakups on orbit, and they have made the (debris) environment worse," shuttle program manager John Shannon told USA Today.

In fact, the risk to the repair mission exceeds NASA's own safety parameters. "Normal" shuttle missions to the ISS carry a one-in-300 risk of a catastrophic collision with space debris; the Hubble flight will carry a one-in-185 risk, and will require NASA Administrator Michael Griffin to give the official go-ahead before Atlantis launches towards Hubble on October 10.

STS-125 commander Scott Altman says his crew knows the risks. "That comes with the mission," he said. "Hubble is where it is... We've got to go where the work is."

FMI: www.nasa.gov/shuttle

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