Astronauts Spot Small Dings on Shuttle Heat Shield
The belly of the shuttle Atlantis will get an up-close look during May 12, 2009 inspections during the STS-125 mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.
Credit: NASA TV.

This story was updated at 4:18 p.m. EDT.

HOUSTON - Astronauts spotted a trail of small dings on the starboard wing of the space shuttle Atlantis Tuesday during a heat shield inspection as they race toward the Hubble Space Telescope.

The dings were caused by launch debris that fell from the shuttle?s external tank as Atlantis rocketed toward Hubble on Monday afternoon, but an initial analysis suggests the damage is minor.

Lead shuttle flight director Tony Ceccacci said the dings are spread across a 21-inch (53-cm) area that includes four heat-resistant tiles. They are located on the bottom right side of Atlantis just ahead of where the shuttle?s body meets its starboard wing.

?They looked very minor, but we?re going to let the folks go ahead and take a look at it, follow the standard process and determine what to do next on it,? Ceccacci told reporters during a briefing here at NASA?s Johnson Space Center.

Launch debris blamed

The dinged tiles were found in a spot where wing-mounted sensors recorded a slight debris impact about 103 seconds after Atlantis launched, Ceccacci said. They appeared as small nicks in images beamed to Earth from today?s heat shield inspection, but more analysis is required.

?Everybody is feeling pretty good that it's not something particularly serious,? astronaut Daniel Burbank radioed up to Atlantis from Mission Control here. ?We just want to make sure we do the right thing and complete all the analysis.?

Atlantis commander Scott Altman and his crew are flying an 11-day mission to overhaul the 19-year-old Hubble Space Telescope for the fifth and final time. They are due to arrive at the space telescope on Wednesday.

Five consecutive spacewalks are planned to install two new cameras and repair two others that were never designed to be fixed in space among other upgrades.

Extra inspection possible

While the dings appear to be minor, Atlantis is carrying a suite of repair tools just in case they might be needed. NASA has also primed the space shuttle Endeavour on a second launch pad in the unlikely event that Atlantis is damaged beyond repair and its crew needs to be rescued in space.

NASA has kept a constant lookout for any shuttle damage from launch debris after a piece of fuel tank foam struck the shuttle Columbia in 2003 leading to its destruction during re-entry. Seven astronauts were killed in the disaster.

Now, astronauts scan their shuttle heat shields at least twice every mission. Today?s inspection was the first for Atlantis? crew. The astronauts will take another look later in the flight to spot any new damage from space junk. The region of space around Hubble?s 350-mile (563-km) orbit is littered with space debris, adding a slightly increased risk to the shuttle mission.

Mission Control told Altman that the astronauts might have to keep trying to beam back images from a stubborn camera on the shuttle?s belly that took snapshots of Atlantis? external tank during launch. The images could reveal where the debris came from, but the camera has experienced glitches sending the images.

Altman and his crew may also have to perform a more detailed scan of the dings during a focused inspection. The astronauts would have to cram that survey in between their challenging spacewalks.

?We know it takes awhile to get the story together,? Altman said. ?We?ll get you whatever data we can.?

But Ceccacci said that if a second look is required, there is a 90-minute window on Friday just before the mission?s second spacewalk.

?I don?t expect it to take very long to get that complete,? Ceccacci said.

Launch pad also damaged

While the Atlantis crew works in space, NASA is examining unexpected damage on Earth to the shuttle?s launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

The blast from Atlantis? engines damaged some nitrogen and pressure lines, as well as a 25-square-foot section of flame retardant material lining the trench beneath the shuttle?s Launch Pad 39A, NASA spokesperson Allard Beutel told SPACE.com from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The so-called flame trench is used to funnel rocket exhaust away from the spacecraft during liftoff.

Beutel said pad workers are expected to be able to repair the launch pad damage in time for the planned June 13 blast off of NASA?s next shuttle mission.

SPACE.com is providing continuous coverage of NASA's last mission to the Hubble Space Telescope with senior editor Tariq Malik in Houston and reporter Clara Moskowitz in New York. Click here for mission updates and SPACE.com's live NASA TV video feed.

  • New Video Show - Hubble's Final Shuttle Service Call
  • New Video - The Hubble Rescue Mission Revealed
  • Image Gallery - Hubble's Latest Views of the Universe: Part 1, Part 2