Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Live in Orbit: Atlantis Inspections in Progress

Inspections of the critical heat shields needed to protect Atlantis on its fiery re-entry into Earth's atmosphere are under way, starting with 22 reinforced carbon-carbon panels on the right wing's leading edge.

A lot is at stake.

The Atlantis crew will not be able to shelter in the International Space Station during its trip to the Hubble Space Telescope, which orbits more than 100 miles above the orbiting science complex.

So any heat shield damage will have to be quickly repaired. Or, if that is not possible, NASA would consider launching Endeavour and four astronauts on a rescue mission as early as next week.

The Atlantis crew also won't benefit from the inspection help a shuttle normally gets on missions to the station, when the station residents shoot digital photos of the orbiter's belly as it performs a backflip on its approach.

As on station flights, the Atlantis crew is using a 50-foot boom extension attached to the shuttle's robotic arm to scan the surfaces of the orbiter's Thermal Protection System, or TPS, with cameras and lasers.

Analysts in Houston will match the images with pre-flight pictures to look for any signs dings or gouges that could have been caused by debris dislodged during Monday's 2:01 p.m. liftoff from Kennedy Space Center.

The survey will take most of the day, proceeding to the left wing's leading edge, the orbiter's nose cap and tiles on the underside of Atlantis.

It will be repeated near the end of the 11-day mission to make sure space debris hasn't caused damage during the flight.

Mission managers expect to know by the time the crew goes to sleep Wednesday evening whether a more detailed "focused" inspection is necessary.

That would be prompt additional steps to ready Endeavour for flight, though the damage would have to be severe to result in a launch from pad 39B - the last before it is turned over to the Constellation program for modifcations needed for the Ares I-X test flight.

That flight is planned no earlier than Aug. 30.

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