NASA: Astronauts use robotic arm to inspect shuttle heat shield

After blasting off Monday afternoon, the crew of the space shuttle Atlantis is using a robotic arm to inspect the shuttle for damage while getting ready to dock with the International Space Station tomorrow.

Loaded up with 27,250 pounds worth of spare parts for the space station, the shuttle lifted off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida yesterday on schedule at 2:28 p.m. The 11-day mission is focused on getting the station stocked up with equipment like gyroscopes, two nitrogen tank assemblies and parts for the onboard robotic system before the space shuttle fleet is retired and these kinds of shipments are much more difficult to make.

On the second day of the mission, the astronauts used the shuttle's 50-foot-long robotic arm , along with its 50-foot-long orbiter boom sensor system, to take pictures of Atlantis's wings and nosecap for any damage that might have occurred during takeoff. According to NASA, the astronauts running the inspection, which takes about five hours, will use a suite of cameras and lasers designed to give them 3-D views of the shuttle's heat shield.

The images will be sent back to ground control, where engineers will inspect them for any problems with the shuttle's thermal protection system, which will be needed to protect the craft during the blazing temperatures it will encounter during re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere.

NASA noted that the astronauts also are inspecting their spacesuits today. And in preparation for tomorrow's docking with the space station , they're extending the shuttle's Orbiter Docking System ring and going over their rendezvous tools.

The equipment being delivered during this mission is considered highly critical to the operation of the space station, according to NASA. At this point, there are only six flights left for the space shuttle fleet before it's scheduled to be retired. The equipment that needs to go up is being delivered in order of highest priority. Since this is the first mission to deliver what scientists hope will turn into a trove of spare parts, they're taking up the most important pieces.

The astronauts are expected to make three space walks to unload the parts from the shuttle and connect them to the sides of the station's truss .

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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