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Astronauts Inspect Shuttle Heat Shield for Dings

This story was updated at 2:50 p.m. EST.

Astronauts aboard NASA’s shuttle Atlantis scanned their spacecraft’s heat shield today for any signs of dings or divots as they prepare for a weekend arrival at the International Space Station (ISS).

Commanded by veteran shuttle flyer Stephen Frick, Atlantis’ seven-astronaut crew used a sensor-tipped extension of their shuttle’s robotic arm to hunt for any damage caused by falling debris during its Thursday launch into orbit. Their detailed inspection wrapped up around 2:40 p.m. EST (1940 GMT) Friday.

Cameras watching Atlantis’ liftoff and mounted to its external tank returned views of what appeared to be three small pieces of foam insulation falling from the orbiter’s 15-story fuel tank about two minutes and 15 seconds after liftoff.

“It’s really hard to tell what they are,” said William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for space operations, just after launch. “It’s fairly small foam loss.”

But, Gerstenmaier said, engineers will have a better handle on the extent of the debris and any possible impacts after completing their analysis of video and images beamed back by the shuttle’s crew.

“We’ll take our time to make sure we understand what we’re seeing there,” said LeRoy Cain, chair of Atlantis’ mission management team, after Thursday’s launch.

NASA has kept a close eye on fuel tank foam and other debris at launch since the tragic loss of the shuttle Columbia and its seven-astronaut crew on Feb. 1, 2003. The agency held a somber memorial last week to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the tragedy and honor the memories of the astronauts killed in the Columbia, Challenger and Apollo 1 accidents.

Frick and his STS-122 crewmates are flying a planned 11-day flight to the ISS, where they will install the European Space Agency’s Columbus laboratory during their mission’s three spacewalks. They are due to dock at the space station at 12:25 p.m. EST (1725 GMT) on Saturday.

Mission control roused the spaceflyers early Friday with the song “Book of Love” by Peter Gabriel, a tune chosen for STS-122 mission specialist Leopold Eyharts by his wife and children. 

“Happy to hear this song,” said Eyharts, an ESA astronaut who will join the space station’s Expedition 16 crew during STS-122. He thanked his family and friends in English and French for choosing it. “It has been a somewhat hard day for them.”

An up-close look

Atlantis astronauts grappled Atlantis’ 50-foot (15-meter) inspection boom with the shuttle’s robotic arm to begin today’s heat shield survey and returned it after the scan finished.

“It takes about six hours to do, it’s a long day,” said Atlantis mission specialist Stanley Love, the chief shuttle robotic arm operator, in a NASA interview. “We’ll rotate four of our crewmembers through it so just about everybody gets a shot.”

Heat shield inspections are a now-standard activity for every NASA shuttle mission since the agency resumed orbiter flights in 2005 following the Columbia accident.

In addition to today’s inspection, astronauts aboard the ISS routinely conduct a photographic survey a shuttle’s heat shield just before docking and return theimages to Earth for analysis. A second detailed inspection near the end of a shuttle mission allows engineers to search for damage caused by micrometeorites and orbital debris.

Laser sensors and cameras at the tip of Atlantis’ inspection boom, which effectively double’s the reach of the orbiter’s robotic arm, allow engineers an extremely detailed look at the heat-resistant carbon composite tiles and panels that protect a shuttle against the searing heat of reentry during landing.

“Of course, you’ve got a total of about a 100 feet of articulated robotic machinery out there and it’s fairly close to your sensitive heat shield,” said Love, adding that he and his crewmates will take great care in wielding the inspection boom to avoid bumping their heat shield. “So it takes a lot of vigilance from the crewmembers to run the surveys.”

Staff writer Dave Mosher contributed to this report from Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

NASA is broadcasting Atlantis' STS-122 mission live on NASA TV. Click here for SPACE.com's shuttle mission coverage and NASA TV feed.

Tariq Malik
Tariq joined Purch's Space.com team in 2001 as a staff writer, and later editor, covering human spaceflight, exploration and space science. He became Space.com's Managing Editor in 2009. Before joining Space.com, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit bage) and went to Space Camp four times. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Google+, Twitter and on Facebook.