Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Atlantis begins "late" heat shield inspection

Ahead of Friday morning's planned re-entry through Earth's atmosphere, Atlantis astronauts have begun a final inspection of orbiter heat shields to be sure they are good condition.

The so-called "late" inspection, identical to one performed after launch, makes use of a 50-foot boom attached to the shuttle's robotic arm to scan reinforced carbon-carbon panels lining the wings and nose cap.

The boom has a box of cameras and laser sensors (left) at its tip that allow analysts in Houston to build 3-D pictures of the thermal protection system.

They can measure the length, thickness and location of any dings or gouges that could have been caused by space junk or micrometeroids during nearly nine days in space so far.

The boom may be given an extra job today.

A dump of waste water (left) earlier this morning was slowed by a possible blockage or ice build-up on a nozzle.

The boom's cameras will give managers a closer look while it's positioned over the shuttle's left wing, following surveys of the right wing and nose cap.

Atlantis commander Charlie Hobaugh asked if the crew could use the boom to knock away the ice, if that was the problem.

"Just kidding," he said, to the relief of mission controllers in Houston.

The issue is not expected to interfere with re-entry and landing plans.

The shield inspection officially began at 9:10 a.m. EST and is expected to wrap up around 1:30 p.m. EST.

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