How space walkers will toil to fix the Hubble trouble

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The Independent Online
(First Edition)

KATHRYN THORNTON, mother of five from Alabama and Nasa astronaut, described yesterday what it will be like to fix the most complex scientific instrument in space: 'Imagine hanging upside down working on your car and wearing your ski mittens that's close.'

She and her space shuttle colleagues will also be doing it while travelling around the Earth at about 17,000mph, circling the planet every 90 minutes.

Dr Thornton and the other shuttle crew have come to Britain as part of their training to mend the solar panels and myopic mirror of the Hubble Space Telescope, which was launched nearly three years ago to look for black holes, dark matter and other secrets of the Universe.

Unfortunately the telescope's main mirror was made to the wrong specification, rendering it incapable of seeing distant objects clearly. It has also developed embarrassing jitters in its solar panels caused by the tremendous temperature differences in space as the telescope passes from sunshine to shade and back again every 90 minutes.

Nasa and the European Space Agency hope to rectify the problems in December with the most complex series of space walks to date. Four astronauts, including Dr Thornton, will split into two shifts to spend 24 hours in space over four working days and that is if everything goes to plan, which in space rarely happens.

Dr Thornton, who became an astronaut in 1985 and has since spent seven hours walking in space, said success depends on being in 'total control' of your body.

'We like to have our feet restrained at all times' she said. 'On Earth you use your feet to walk and your hands to work. Up there you use your hands to walk and unless you can restrain your body in some other way you've got nothing left to work with.'

Part of the training is to get accustomed to the new solar panels, which are being made in Bristol by British Aerospace, before continuing a programme of underwater exercises on a mock-up of the telescope, which is the size of a double-decker bus.

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