Camera Glitch Should Not Impact Shuttle Mission, NASA Says
This view from a camera mounted on the external fuel tank of space shuttle Atlantis shows the spacecraft as it nears its final orbit after a successful launch from Florida on May 16, 2010. Moments later, the tank was jettisoned as planned.
Credit: NASA TV

This story was updated at 6:53 p.m. EDT.

A camera glitch that occurred while astronauts were inspecting the space shuttle Atlantis' heat shield Saturday shouldn't cause any overall negative impact to the mission, a NASA official said.

The six-man crew aboard shuttle Atlantis spent Saturday ? their first full day in space after launching Friday afternoon ? scanning the orbiter's sensitive insulation tiles to ensure they were not damaged during the liftoff.

While checking out the shuttle's inspection boom ? a long pole tipped with sensors used for the scan ? the astronauts had trouble moving the camera used to record data. After hours of troubleshooting, they discovered that a cable connected to the sensor camera was pinched in a piece of hardware on the shuttle. The glitch forced the crew to revert to a backup camera normally used during a later inspection.

Although the issue slowed down the normally six-hour inspection considerably, it ultimately shouldn't harm the mission or its objectives, STS-132 lead shuttle flight director Mike Sarafin said Saturday.

Atlantis is slated to catch up to the International Space Station Sunday at 10:27 a.m. EDT (1627 GMT) to begin a weeklong stay to deliver a new Russian lab and spare supplies.

"The crew is proceeding towards rendezvous and docking tomorrow as planned," Sarafin said.

Sensor trouble

The original camera intended for the scan has a wider field of view and contains its own light source. With that sensor system unusable, the astronauts opted to use a second sensor camera that takes more detailed images. However, that camera has no light source so could only be used while Atlantis was flying over the daylight side of Earth.

"It's kind of a mixed bag," Sarafin said of the camera swap. "We have a little bit better coverage using the planned camera but it's higher-resolution imagery using the camera we used today."

Given the slower pace of today's inspection, the astronauts were not able to completely scan all the areas of the shuttle that they planned. In particular, they had to stop before the finished inspecting Atlantis port, or left-side, wing. They plan to cover that area using the regular camera attached to the end of the shuttle's robotic arm, after Atlantis docks with the space station.

"We can get adequate scans and imagery of that entire portion of the port wing since it's on the same side as the shuttle robotic arm," said Atlantis' Mission Management Team co-chair LeRoy Cain.

In addition, more data on Atlantis' heat shield will be gathered when the shuttle flies in a planned back flip as it approaches the space station to allow astronauts stationed there to snap photographs of its underbelly and sides.

"Once we get all that imagery on the ground the team will determine if we need to get additional information? or if we've got all of what we need," Sarafin said.

If necessary, astronauts can undertake a second, more thorough inspection of the shuttle's heat shield during their fifth day in space, when some time has been set aside for the purpose.

Space debris

Another issue that came up was a possible threat from a piece of stray space debris that appeared to be headed toward the International Space Station.

"We know that this object is there but we don't know the source of it," Sarafin said. "And we know that it's going to come in relatively close proximity to the International Space Station tomorrow."

Space junk, such as used rocket parts, broken satellite bits and other trash, poses a serious risk of impacting spacecraft and causing damage, since both it and any vehicle in orbit are moving at extremely high speeds.

Ultimately, mission managers determined that this particular piece of debris is not a threat to the station, so they decided not to maneuver the orbiting laboratory to avoid it. Even if the station had had to move, it likely wouldn't have significantly impacted Altantis' plans to dock tomorrow.

SPACE.com is providing complete coverage of Atlantis' STS-132 mission to the International Space Station with Senior Writer Clara Moskowitz and Managing Editor Tariq Malik based in New York. Click here for shuttle mission updates and a link to NASA TV.