Astronauts on the Hubble-bound repair mission deployed a robotic arm and sensor May 12 to inspect the space shuttle Atlantis' heat shields after NASA officials became concerned over possible launch damage. Atlantis blasted off to the Hubble Space Telescope May 11.
According to NASA, the liftoff damaged about 25 square feet of the shuttle's launch pad flame trench, and debris from the damage apparently nicked Atlantis. NASA said Atlantis suffered minor dents along an area of about 21 inches spanning four of the shuttle's thermal tiles located on the starboard side of the spacecraft.
In what has become a standard routine for shuttle flights since the 2003 Columbia accident that killed seven crew members due to a damaged heat shield, the Atlantis crew spent the day before they are scheduled to arrive at the Hubble inspecting the heat shields with a sensors attached to a boom. The crew reported they found a scratch across several heat-resistant ceramic tiles.
"Everybody is feeling pretty good that it's not something potentially serious," NASA astronaut Joe Burbank told Atlantis commander Scott Altman. Flight Director Tony Ceccacci said that upon an initial look, damage found during the inspection appeared to be minor and likely not a concern, but he said experts will analyze it as is normal to be certain the shuttle's heat shielding is in good shape.
NASA also said damage to the launch area was minimal and would not interfere with a rescue launch for Atlantis if necessary. Since the Columbia disaster, NASA has built in emergency plans for shuttles damaged on takeoff to seek shelter in the International Space Station. However, the flight plan to the Hubble is located too far away from the space station and the space shuttle Endeavour is on standby.
The seven-man Atlantis crew will conduct five spacewalks to install two new instruments, repair two inactive ones and perform component replacements over the 11-day mission to keep the Hubble operational through at least 2014. The Atlantis manifest lists 22,500 pounds of equipment.
In addition to the scheduled repairs, Atlantis will also carry a replacement Science Instrument Command and Data Handling Unit for the Hubble. The Hubble's current system stopped working on Sept. 27, 2008, delaying the servicing mission until the replacement was ready.