Astronauts Check Heat Shield, Close in on Hubble Telescope

Hubble-Bound Astronauts Inspect Shuttle for Damage

Astronauts aboard the space shuttle Atlantis will check their spacecraft’s vital heat shield for damage Tuesday as they head to the Hubble Space Telescope on one last service call.

During the shuttle survey, the spaceflyers will use an inspection pole tipped with laser sensors and cameras to seek out any dings in the heat-resistant panels lining the spacecraft’s wing edges and nose.

The shuttle’s heat shield health will be a key factor in NASA’s decision on whether to press ahead with the risky mission to overhaul Hubble or call up the Endeavour orbiter, which is on standby to fly a rescue mission to retrieve the Atlantis astronauts if their spacecraft is damaged beyond repair.

Atlantis and its crew of seven astronauts launched toward Hubble on Monday to begin NASA’s fifth and final mission to the 19-year-old space telescope. The astronauts plan to perform five consecutive spacewalks to add two new cameras, repair two other instruments never designed to be repaired in space and perform other maintenance. Atlantis is due to arrive at Hubble on Wednesday.

Read the full story.