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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Fixing the Hubble Space Telescope

Gentlemen, NASA TV is the place to be this week. They have the Hubble Space Telescope in the payload bay of the Shuttle and soon they will be going outside to do the kinds of repairs that Knack victms can relate to. (Update: I'm watching a space walk live through the helmet-cam of Astronaut Grunsfeld. They are now lubricating some bolts on the doors of the telescope.)

Here is the NASA description of the repairs.

Two of Hubble's instruments are in need of repair. ACS, which partially stopped working in 2007 due to an electrical short, is the "workhorse camera" responsible for some of Hubble's most spectacular images. STIS is a spectrograph that sees ultraviolet, visible and near-infrared light, and is known for its ability to hunt black holes. While COS works best with small sources of light, such as stars or quasars, STIS can map out larger objects like galaxies. STIS suffered a power failure in 2004 and was put into hibernation to preserve the possibility of its repair.

Astronauts plan to fix both – a challenging prospect since these repairs are beyond the scope of Hubble’s serviceable design. Hubble’s creators envisioned astronauts swapping out components, not performing delicate surgeries during spacewalks.

An interior electronics box of ACS that supplies power for ACS detectors, contains equipment affected by an electrical short. However, its location makes it inaccessible to astronauts. So instead of trying to reach the problem area, astronauts will attempt to bypass those power-shorted components entirely.

The failed power supply is connected by cables to a series of electronics boards, which are within reach but have no power because of the damaged box. Astronauts will install a new power supply to a handrail on the ACS outer enclosure, remove the electronics boards and install different ones that are compatible with the new power supply, and connect them to the new supply with exterior cables. The arrangement simply cuts the damaged box out of the equation.

Innovative tools for the repairs are designed and developed by Goddard engineers and tested by the astronauts for refinements. STIS needs a new power supply circuit board. The repair would be relatively easy but for the electronics access panel, which was never meant to be opened and is attached to STIS by 111 small screws. The screws are hard to grasp with the astronauts' gloved hands, and could create problems if they were to escape and float around the electronics. So engineers have created a "fastener capture plate" that fits over the top of the panel. When the astronauts remove the screws, they will be trapped in the plate. Astronauts will then switch out the power supply circuit board and close off the open electronics with a new, simpler panel that attaches easily with two levers.

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