Atlantis Astronauts Inspect Shuttle Heat Shield
This comnpter-generated image reveals the view an observer might have watching Flight Day 2 heat shield inspections for the space shuttle Atlantis during NASA's STS-117 mission.
Credit: NASA.

This story was updated at 5:57 p.m. EDT.

Astronauts aboard NASA's shuttle Atlantis scanned their spacecraft's heat shield for any signs of damage Saturday as they continue on course towards the International Space Station (ISS).

Atlantis launched into orbit late Friday on a planned 11-day construction mission to the orbital laboratory. Commanded by veteran shuttle flyer Rick Sturckow, the mission will deliver a pair of new starboard solar arrays and trusses to the ISS after docking on Sunday.

But first, the shuttle's seven-astronaut crew used a sensor-laden extension of Atlantis' 50-foot (15-meter) robotic arm to capture detailed images of the orbiter's heat shield in what has now a standard activity since NASA recovered from the 2003 Columbia accident. The task allows engineers on Earth to verify whether the shuttle suffered damage from falling debris during liftoff.

"This mission, we've incorporated some of the lessons learned from previous flights," Cathy Koerner, NASA's lead shuttle flight director for Atlantis' STS-117 mission, said of the survey. "We?ve made them more efficient. We've automated some of the maneuvers."

Today's orbiter heat shield inspection, a traditional Flight Day 2 task since NASA resumed shuttle flights in 2005, is slated to began at about 3:00 p.m. EDT (1900 GMT) and was slated to run about five hours in duration.

STS-117 mission specialist Patrick Forrester, who serves as lead shuttle robotics operator, and his crewmates have already found some slight damage in the form of a torn thermal blanket on one Atlantis' two aft-mounted Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) pods. The damage was recorded late Friday during robotic arm checks after the orbiter reached space, and will be studied alongside data collected today, NASA officials said.

NASA has kept a close eye on the integrity of its shuttle heat shields during spaceflights after the 2003 loss of the Columbia orbiter and its seven-astronaut crew. A piece of fuel tank foam insulation fell free during Columbia?s launch and damaged its heat shield, leading to its loss during landing as it reentered the Earth's atmosphere.

Since then, NASA has modified shuttle fuel tanks to reduce foam debris during liftoff and instituted several in-flight inspections to ensure the health of its astronaut-carrying spacecraft.

Cameras mounted to Atlantis' fuel tank did record some foam loss during its Friday launch, but mission managers said the debris appeared not to strike the orbiter.

Swifter survey

During today's inspection, laser imagers and digital cameras at the tip of Atlantis' 50-foot (15-meter) robotic arm extension recorded detailed views of the orbiter's belly-mounted tiles other areas for later analysis by experts on Earth.

"I think in the past, it's been almost a seven- or eight-hour process," Atlantis shuttle pilot Lee Archambault, who also participated in the survey, told reporters before launch, adding that the new automated procedures for STS-117 were expected to save time. "It knocks a couple of hours off the inspection time."

Archambault said the survey also features the first simultaneous use of both a laser ranging imager and a high-resolution digital camera, which were used separately in the past when focused inspections were required after the initial scan.

"It's almost like we're going to be getting a focused inspection at the same time as the primary inspection," Archambault said.

NASA is broadcasting the space shuttle Atlantis' STS-117 mission live on NASA TV. Click here for mission updates and SPACE.com's video feed.

  • SPACE.com Video Interplayer: Space Station Power Up with STS-117
  • STS-117 Power Play: Atlantis Shuttle Crew to Deliver ISS Solar Wings
  • The Great Space Quiz: Space Shuttle Countdown
  • Complete Shuttle Mission Coverage