- Associated Press - Sunday, May 17, 2009

Spacewalking astronauts gave the Hubble Space Telescope a better view of the cosmos by installing a new high-tech instrument Saturday, then pulled off their toughest job yet: fixing a broken camera.

It was the third spacewalk in as many days for the shuttle Atlantis crew, and it had been expected to be the most challenging ever performed because of the unprecedented camera repairs. Astronauts had never before tried to take apart a science instrument at the 19-year-old observatory.

Hubble’s chief mechanic, John Grunsfeld, deftly opened up the burned-out camera and plucked out all four electronic cards that needed to be replaced.

“Somehow, I don’t think brain surgeons go ‘woo-hoo’ when they pull something out,” one of the astronauts observed from inside Atlantis.

To everyone’s surprise, the new cards and power supply pack went in just as smoothly. In fact, the astronauts found themselves running ahead of schedule for a change, their spacewalk lasting the allotted 6 1/2 hours. The first two spacewalks ended up running long because of unexpected difficulties encountered with Hubble, last visited seven years ago.

The astronauts cheered when Mission Control radioed up the news that the repaired camera had passed the first round of testing. A second round of testing was expected to last well into the night.

Even with two spacewalks remaining, including the repair of a major instrument Sunday, NASA managers were handing out accolades and talking about how improved the telescope already is.

“At this point in time, Hubble has reached a new high in terms of its capability,” Hubble program manager Preston Burch said at a news conference Saturday afternoon. “We’re enjoying the moment and savoring it.”

Atlantis’ crew broke out in grins.

The high-stakes job unfolded 350 miles above Earth. Orbiting so high put Atlantis and its astronauts at an increased risk of being hit by space junk. NASA had another shuttle on launch standby in case a rescue was needed.

Earlier, Mr. Grunsfeld and his spacewalking partner, Andrew Feustel, accomplished their first chore, hooking up the $88 million Cosmic Origins Spectrograph.

They made room for the new supersensitive spectrograph - designed to detect faint light from faraway quasars - by removing the corrective lenses that restored Hubble’s vision in 1993.

“This is really pretty historic,” Mr. Grunsfeld said as he and Mr. Feustel hoisted out the phone-booth-size box containing Hubble’s old contacts.

Hubble was launched in 1990 with a flawed mirror that left it nearsighted. But the newer science instruments have corrective lenses built in, making the 1993 contacts unnecessary. The latest addition, the cosmic spectrograph, is expected to provide greater insight into how planets, stars and galaxies formed.

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