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Solar wing damage adds to space station troubles

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - NASA’s problems with the International Space Station’s solar power wings multiplied on Tuesday after one panel ripped, threatening the structural integrity of the orbital outpost.

The 2.5-foot (75-cm) tear reduced the wings’ energy output by just a fraction but until NASA can anchor the panels, managers will not proceed with plans to launch Europe’s long-delayed Columbus laboratory on December 6, space station program manager Mike Suffredini said.

The problem surfaced at the end of an otherwise successful spacewalk by two shuttle Discovery astronauts to move a pair of the station’s solar wing panels to the outermost end of the station’s frame.

To help stabilize the station, NASA locked the wings in place to prevent them from automatically tracking the sun for energy.

“I don’t want to do any more damage to the array than what’s already been done,” Suffredini told reporters.

Managers previously deactivated automated operation of a second wing rotator after astronauts discovered metal shavings inside the joint.

Engineers were assessing which side of the station’s troubled power system to attack first. NASA already canceled plans for a spacewalk to test a shuttle heat shield repair technique so astronauts could instead inspect the joint where metal shavings were found on Sunday.

Slideshow ( 18 images )

That work might now be postponed in favor of fixing the tear in one of the left-side solar panels.

“It’s not a situation where anybody is particularly panicked,” said Suffredini, adding that the fix might not be pretty.

“All we need is power. It doesn’t have to look good,” he said.

SCHEDULE SQUEEZE

Video relayed from television cameras on the space station and shuttle Discovery showed a flap of the golden wing folded up and the panel’s lower frame buckling.

Station commander Peggy Whitson said the damage likely occurred as the folded-up blanket was being pulled out of its storage box.

Slideshow ( 18 images )

“We didn’t abort because we didn’t see the tear,” Whitson radioed to ground controllers, explaining that the view was obstructed by sun glint and the station’s robot arm.

“Hey, no worries Peggy,” replied astronaut Kevin Ford from Mission Control in Houston. “We had good video, too, and we were keeping our eye on it, so that’s just the way it goes.”

NASA already faced a tight deadline to launch shuttle Atlantis between December 6 and 13 when sun angles were acceptable for the shuttle to berth at the orbital outpost. When managers decided to inspect the solar array joint during Thursday’s spacewalk they added a day to what previously had been a 10-day visit at the station.

That left NASA only five days in December for launching Columbus. And since station crew members must complete a lengthy list of tasks after Discovery leaves but before the next ship arrives, the new problem squeezes the schedule for Columbus’ flight even more.

“I wouldn’t want to do anything, relative to (Columbus’ launch) until we sort this out further,” Suffredini said.

NASA is trying to finish the space station, which is a project of 15 nations, by 2010 when the space shuttle fleet is scheduled for retirement.

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