Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Live In Orbit: No Damage Detected During Inspections

The Atlantis astronauts have completed a painstaking inspection of the shuttle's wings and nose cap, and NASA officials say no significant damage was apparent during the six-hour survey.

"There was no obvious sign of a problem on Atlantis or the heat shield. and we'll just let the imagery analysts and the experts here on the ground that have the trained eyeballs pour over the huge amount of data we've got," said NASA flight director Mike Sarrafin.

With a 50-foot inspection boom latched to the end of the shuttle's equally lengthy robot arm, the astronauts scanned the leading edges of Atlantis' starboard and port wings as well as its nose cap.

Twenty-two U-shaped panels made of a vulnerable composite carbon serve as thermal armor for each of the wings during atmospheric reentry, and the nose cap is made of the same brittle material.

A television camera and laser sensors on the end of the inspection boom are designed to detect any damage that might have been done to the wings and nose cap during the shuttle's nine-minute climb into orbit.

The inspections have been standard operating procedure since NASA returned the shuttle fleet to service after the 2003 Columbia accident. Damage done to a wing panel went undetected during Columbia's 16-day science mission. The breach allowed hot gasses to blow-torch through the wing and rip the ship apart during an ill-fated atmospheric reentry.

Coming up later today and tomorrow:

The astronauts will extend the shuttle's docking ring later today in advance of a planned arrival Wednesday at the International Space Station.

Atlantis and its crew are due to dock at the outpost just before noon Wednesday.

Former Kennedy Space Center engineer-turned-astronaut Nicole Stott, now serving as a flight engineer on the station, will join the shuttle crew after Atlantis arrives at the outpost.

Stott and the six Atlantis astronauts are due back at KSC on Nov. 27.

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