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Steady as she goes in astronauts' latest task

A SECOND pair of spacewalkers from the shuttle Atlantis tackled the most important task on NASA's fix-up list for the Hubble Space Telescope yesterday, installing new positioning gear to steady its gaze.

The six gyroscopes are not the most exciting part of the telescope, which another pair of spacewalkers on Thursday outfitted with a new panchromatic camera that can see light in infrared, visible and ultraviolet wavelengths.

But key to the telescope's success is its ability to point and hold steady on a target, which project managers say is like illuminating a dime with a laser beam from 320 kilometers away.

That trick is accomplished with spinning gyroscopes, all six of which are expected to be replaced by astronauts Michael Massimino and Michael Good, during the second of five spacewalks planned during shuttle Atlantis' ongoing Hubble telescope servicing mission.

"Those gyros are absolutely critical," said Hubble project manager Preston Burch.

Gyroscopes have been replaced during NASA's previous house calls to Hubble, including a 1999 mission that restored the observatory to service after four of its six gyros died. The telescope is designed to operate with three gyros, but engineers devised a plan to use two and, if necessary, even one.

The replacement is not particularly difficult work, but getting access is tricky.

Massimino will have to crouch to get himself positioned inside the observatory, where there is a small platform to anchor his boots. He will wedge himself against the inner structure, then try to avoid moving.

"My mantra is 'Be a statue'," he said.

Massimino worked on the telescope during NASA's 2002 telescope servicing mission. Good is making his first spaceflight.

As the astronauts floated into Atlantis' cargo hold to begin a spacewalk expected to take over 6 hours, Massimino raidioed to his crewmates on the shuttle: "It's a beautiful day outside."

The spacewalkers also plan to replace three of Hubble's 19-year-old batteries, which have degraded to the point that they can only be partly charged. The remaining three batteries will be replaced during the mission's last spacewalk on Monday.

Atlantis is making NASA's fifth and final visit to Hubble before the shuttle fleet is retired next year.


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