NASA investigating damage to heat shield of shuttle Atlantis

Dings, caused by debris hit during liftoff, appears minor; said to affect four tiles

An outer space inspection of the heat shield on the NASA space shuttle Atlantis has found multiple dings in critical outer tiles.

The scratches were found on the forward part of the shuttle's right wing close to where it connects to the fuselage, according to NASA spokeswoman Katherine Trinidad. The damage, found on four different heat shield tiles, looks minor, but NASA will continue to investigate it, while also looking for any other damage on the space shuttle which is orbiting about 350 miles above the Earth.

The damage seems to be related to a debris impact that occurred about 104 seconds after the Atlantis lifted off the ground yesterday afternoon.

"We have to go through more analysis," Trinidad said. "We're not sure how big they are. It's a matter of determining if something needs to be done."

She did not specify exactly what would be done if the damage turns out to be serious enough to negatively impact the shuttle upon its re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere where it has to withstand withering temperatures. The options include a spacewalk by astronauts to try and fix the damage or the launch of another space shuttle by NASA to rescue the astronauts.

NASA has been especially diligent about studying the heat shields since the space shuttle Columbia broke apart upon re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003. According to NASA, an investigation found that the disaster was caused by a hole in the heat-resistant panels that protected the wing from the high temperatures of re-entry. The hole allowed superheated air into the wing, which was destroyed, sending the shuttle spinning out of control before it broke apart.

After the space shuttle Discovery undocked from the International Space Station in March, the NASA astronauts ran the craft through two days of inspections to make sure it was ready for the rough flight home. To do that, they used the shuttle's robotic arm and an attached laser imager to inspect the external tiles that make up shuttle's heat shield, along with its nose cone and the edges of its wings.

On this shuttle mission, the Atlantis crew is using the NASA vehicle's robotic arm and a sensor designed to detect damage to critical areas of the shuttle's thermal protection system, especially on the craft's nose and the edges of its wings.

This is the crew's first full day in orbit. The astronauts are scheduled to rendezvous with the Hubble Space Telescope on Wednesday when crew members will use the shuttle's robotic arm again -- this time to grab the orbiter and pull it into the shuttle's payload bay. On Thursday, two astronauts will make the first of the mission's five spacewalks.

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