Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Shuttle heat shield inspection complete

Analysts in Houston are reviewing pictures of Atlantis' heat shields after a final inspection wrapped up early this afternoon, while other teams investigate a problem venting waste water into space.

Managers plan to let the crew know by Thursday if the shields appear safe for Friday's planned plunge through Earth's atmosphere, en route to a 9:44 a.m. landing at Kennedy Space Center.

Using a boom equipped with cameras and laser sensors, the crew scanned the orbiter's wing leading edges and nose cap, the areas subjected to the most intense heat during re-entry.

NASA TV commentators said there were no obvious signs of damage during the scans, but analysis was ongoing.

A similar inspection was performed after the mission's Nov. 16 launch. The "late" inspection ensures that micrometeorites haven't dinged the shuttle during its week docked at the International Space Station.

The inspection came hours after Atlantis undocked from the station at 4:53 a.m. EST today, ending a seven-day visit during which the shuttle delivered spare parts and picked up an astronaut for the ride home.

While inspecting the heat shields, the crew took advantage of the opportunity to look at a waste water vent line that isn't working properly.

Camera views helped mission managers rule out the possibility that a nozzle (above) was blocked by ice build-up. Built in heaters usually eliminate any ice that's formed.

An internal blockage near a filter is the suspected problem. The 165-pound capacity tank, which is holding mostly urine and some condensation sucked from crew cabin air – is about half empty after an effort to vent it this morning (above).

Mike Sarafin, the mission's lead shuttle flight director, said the issue wouldn't interfere with a Friday landing, but could be a problem if weather delayed the mission an extra day.

"I'm confident that the team will come up with a backup plan should we need to offload that waste tank," he said.

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