Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Shuttle flexes robotic arm for last time

Nearly 30 years after its debut, the space shuttle's 50-foot, Canadian-built robotic arm is beginning its last operation in space.

Atlantis astronauts will drive the Shuttle Remote Manipulator System, known as the Canadarm, to perform a final inspection of critical heat shields.

Attached to the end of the arm is a 50-foot boom extension equipped with cameras and lasers that will scan reinforced carbon-carbon panels lining the orbiter's wing leading edges and nose cap, areas subjected to the most intense heat during re-entry.

Analysts on the ground will review the images for any sign that micrometeroids or orbital debris have dinged the heat shields since an identical inspection was performed July 9, the day after Atlantis launched the 135th and final shuttle mission.

Mission managers so far have identified no concerns about heat shield damage. The Flight Day 2 and "late" inspections are standard procedures implemented after the 2003 Columbia disaster.

The Canadarm was first used by Columbia pilot Dick Truly on the second shuttle mission in November 1981.

Since then arms have been used to grab and deploy satellites including the Hubble Space Telescope, and helped move and install much of the large, heavy hardware that was joined to form the International Space Station.

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