January 10, 2008 / 9:21 PM / in 10 years

NASA sets new February 7 launch date for shuttle

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - NASA set February 7 as the new date for a launch on a space shuttle of Europe’s Columbus laboratory to the International Space Station, officials said on Thursday.

The rescheduled date depends on whether the flight of a Russian cargo ship, scheduled for the same day, can be changed. The station can support only one docked vehicle at a time.

Two attempts last month to launch Columbus in the loading bay of the space shuttle Atlantis were canceled due to problems with an emergency engine cutoff system. Columbus will be Europe’s first permanent space laboratory.

Last week, NASA optimistically reserved January 24 for the lab’s launch, but work to replace and analyze suspect components will bump the flight to February, said NASA spokesman Steve Roy.

So far, inspections, X-rays and pressure tests of the device believed to be the cause of Atlantis’ electrical problem have turned up nothing, Roy added.

Engineers are trying to determine why sensors in the shuttle’s fuel tank relayed false readings during launch attempts on December 6 and December 9, as well as during a fueling test later in the month.

The sensors are part of a backup system to shut down the shuttle’s three hydrogen-burning main engines in case the tank runs out of fuel due to a leak or other problems during the 8.5-minute climb to orbit. Running the engines dry could trigger a catastrophic explosion.

NASA believes the problem is with a three-part connector plate in the wall of the shuttle’s tank. The suspect device was removed and sent to the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for analysis.

Additional tests are scheduled this week. The device will be subjected to the super-cold environment experienced while the shuttle’s tank is filled with liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen prior to liftoff.

No matter what the findings, NASA is moving ahead with plans to outfit Atlantis with a modified connector that has its electrical components soldered rather than plugged in.

The agency has scheduled 12 flights to the space station between 2008 and September 30, 2010, when the shuttle fleet is due to be retired. It would also like to fly a final servicing call to the Hubble Space Telescope this year.

Editing by Michael Christie and Peter Cooney

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