CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - The Space shuttle Atlantis closed in on the International Space Station on Saturday as shuttle crew checked the ship’s wings for any damage from blastoff.
NASA has been concerned about foam insulation falling off the fuel tank during launch ever since it lost the shuttle Columbia and seven astronauts in 2003.
Debris hitting the craft can damage the delicate heat panels and tiles that protect it from the scorching plunge through the atmosphere to return to Earth.
Columbia’s wing was damaged by debris during launch and the spaceship was torn apart over Texas as it headed to landing.
Atlantis’ launch on Friday, the fifth since the fatal accident, heightened attention on the tank because it needed extensive repairs to fix hail damage.
The shuttle was on the launch pad being prepared for a mid-March takeoff when a freak storm on February 26 dropped hailstones on the ship, forcing NASA to delay it the mission for three months.
There were no immediate signs of hazardous debris flying off the tank during launch, NASA managers said on Friday.
Engineers, however, were studying a bit of insulation on the shuttle’s left maneuvering engine pod that had pulled out at one corner.
“It doesn’t look too bad, but we knew everybody would want to look at it down there,” said Atlantis commander Frederick Sturckow.
The crew powered up the shuttle’s Canadian-built robot arm and attached a 50-foot (15-meter) long extension boom equipped with cameras and sensors for close-up inspections of the ship’s heat shield.
Astronauts Patrick Forrester, Steven Swanson and Lee Archambault slowly panned the imagers over the leading edges of the shuttle’s right wing.
In addition to the wings, the crew will use the boom to scan the shuttle’s nosecone — areas that are subject to the most intense heating during atmospheric re-entry.
Another area of concern is the shuttle’s belly, which is covered with delicate, black ceramic tiles that can withstand temperatures as hot as about 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit (1,260 Celsius). It will be photographed by the International Space Station crew as Atlantis makes its approach on Sunday.
The shuttle is scheduled to spend a week at the space station to install a new set of solar wings and fold up an older solar power-producing panel to be moved next year.
Sturckow and pilot Archambault fired the shuttle’s steering jets to close the distance between the shuttle and the space station.
After a second engine burn, the shuttle should be trailing the station by 46 miles. Docking is scheduled for 3:38 p.m. EDT (1938 GMT) on Sunday.
NASA has a dozen more flights scheduled to complete construction of the $100 billion orbital complex, a project of 16 nations.
The U.S. space agency also wants to fly two missions to store spare parts aboard and to service the Hubble Space Telescope one last time before all three of its remaining orbiters are permanently grounded in 2010.