May 12, 2009, 8:45 PM — The crew of the space shuttle Atlantis is using the NASA vehicle's robotic arm to determine whether the spacecraft's heat shield was damaged during yesterday's blast off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The astronauts are using the technology to inspect critical areas of shuttle's thermal protection system, especially on the craft's nose and the edges of its wings. Data and images from the inspection, which is a routine check up after any shuttle launch, is sent down to analysts at Mission Control in Houston, according to NASA.
A robotic arm onboard the space shuttle Discovery was used in a similar fashion late in March.
After Discovery undocked from the International Space Station and the crew was preparing to return to Earth, the NASA astronauts ran the craft through ran two days of inspections to make sure it was ready for the rough flight home. To do that, the crew 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.
NASA has been especially diligent about studying the heat shields since the space shuttle Columbia broke apart on reentry 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 reentry. The hole allowed superheated air into the wing, which was destroyed by it, sending the shuttle spinning out of control before it broke apart.
This is the crew's first full day in orbit. They are scheduled to rendezvous with the Hubble Space Telescope on Wednesday when astronauts will use the shuttle's robotic arm again - this time to grab onto 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.
The shuttle is carrying 22,500 pounds of equipment for the maintenance and upgrade of the 19-year-old telescope, including new grapple hooks and a platform that can be used in case future missions go up to service the telescope. This will be the shuttle's last trip to Hubble though, since the NASA space shuttles are scheduled to be retired next year.
This week's mission includes plans to install new gyroscopes, circuit boards and critical camera systems. The NASA astronauts are also bringing up a new backup computer system to replace an onboard backup system that had to be put into use last fall when the main system failed, leaving the Hubble unable to do much of its scientific work. NASA engineers made the remote switchover to a backup system from a room in the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., while the telescope hurtled along its orbit around Earth at 17,500 mph.