NASA Scans Heat Shield, Eyes Debris After Shuttle Leaves ISS

NASA Scans Heat Shield, Eyes Debris After Shuttle Leaves ISS
A camera mounted to the exterior of the International Space Station caught this view of the shuttle Atlantis after its June 19, 2007 undocking during NASA's STS-117 mission. (Image credit: NASA TV.)

HOUSTON -- Astronautsaboard NASA?s shuttle Atlantis scanned their heat shield for a second timeTuesday as engineers on Earth pondered a bit of debris seen during the orbiter?sdeparture earlier from the International Space Station (ISS).

Atlantis?STS-117 crew inspected vital heat-resistant panels along the shuttle?s wingedges and nose cap for damage by micrometeorites and orbital debris lateTuesday, but at first look the scan showed no obvious signs of change from anearlier survey, shuttle officials said.

CathyKoerner, NASA?s lead STS-117 shuttle flight director, said image analysts willstudy the images overnight to ensure Atlantis? heat shield is still clear for aplanned Thursday landing. Mission managers initially cleared the orbiter of anyconcern related to debris shed during its June 8 launch last week pending thenow-standard late inspections.

NASA analystsare studying a white object that appeared to drift from the ISS in video takenby a camera aboard Atlantis well after the shuttle had castoff from the orbital laboratory to determine if it actually emanated fromthe station or is merely small bit of debris near the orbiter.

?The earlyanalysis is that it?s probably something that came from the orbiter since theorbiter was moving away,? NASA?s ISS program manager Mike Suffredini said,adding that image analysts are studying additional video from Atlantis just tobe sure. ?Which makes it a very small object.?

If it camefrom thespace station, the object would be larger due to the distance between theoutpost and Atlantis, and resembled a blanket-like material in video from theshuttle, Suffredini said. The ongoing study is a mark of due diligence sincethe object was clearly visible in video from the undocking, but it is notthought to be a concern, he added.

Koerneradded that ice is a typical companion near the shuttle during orbital maneuversas exhaust water freezes, and said it is not uncommon for small objects to flynear orbiters in space.

LastSeptember, a number of small objects spotted floating nearby Atlantis by itsSTS-115 crew prompted additionalinspections and a landing delay, but no damage or other concerns wereultimately found.

Atlantisundocked from the ISS at 10:42 a.m. EDT (1442 GMT) after a busy construction flightto the orbital laboratory.

Commandedby veteran shuttle flyer Rick Sturckow, the STS-117 installed newpower-generating solar arrays and their 17.5-ton truss segments to thestation?s starboard side, furled an older solar wing and stapled a looseblanket down to Atlantis? left engine pod during the course of four spacewalks.The mission also featured a one-astronaut swap for the station?s Expedition 15crew.

Atlantis isslated to return to Earth Thursday, with landing set at 1:54 p.m. EDT (1754GMT) at NASA?s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

NASA is broadcasting the space shuttle Atlantis' STS-117 mission live on NASATV. Click here for mission updatesand's video feed.

  • Video Interplayer: Space Station Power Up with STS-117
  • IMAGES: Atlantis Shuttle?s STS-117 Launch Day
  • Complete Shuttle Mission Coverage



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Tariq Malik

Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. You can find Tariq at and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik.