CAPECANAVERAL, Fla. - The weather looks good for NASA?s planned Thursday launch ofthe shuttle Atlantis and a European-built laboratory to the International SpaceStation (ISS), mission managers said Monday.
Atlantis isin prime shape for its plannedafternoon launch toward the ISS, where its seven-astronaut crew will installthe European Space Agency?s (ESA) Columbus laboratory, though engineers arerepairing slight damage to the shuttle?s foam-covered external fuel tank.
?It?s veryminor,? said NASA test director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson in a mission updatehere at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC).
Engineersspotted three dings in the curved upper section of Atlantis? 15-story fuel tankon Friday during an inspection at the orbiter?s Pad 39A launch site. Repairwork is underway, with new foam to be applied on Tuesday, Blackwell-Thompsonsaid.
NASA haskept a close eye on the integrity of the foam insulation covering its shuttlefuel tanks since the 2003 Columbia accident, when a large piece of insulationbroke free to critically damage the orbiter?s heat shield. The slight damage toAtlantis? fuel tank, by comparison, are small, relatively easily repaired andshould not impact plans for Thursday?s launch, Blackwell-Thompson said.
Meanwhile,the weather seems to be smiling on Atlantis. The shuttle and its STS-122astronaut crew have an 80 percent chance of launching spaceward at 4:31p.m. EST (2131 GMT) on Thursday, with the possibility of a low cloud ceilingposing the only concern.
?Theweather is actually looking pretty good for launch day,? said NASA shuttleweather officer Kathy Winters. ?We?re actually pretty optimistic about it.?
NASA has a slim launch window that closes on Dec. 13 in which to launchAtlantis to the ISS before the angles between the station?s solar arrays andthe sun become unfavorable to support docked operations. Weather forecasts dipslight after Thursday due to the potential for rain showers, giving Atlantis a60 percent chance of favorable launch weather, Winters said.
Commandedby veteranshuttle flyer Stephen Frick, Atlantis? STS-122 astronauts plan to performthree spacewalks to wire up Columbus and outfit the ISS, and will swap out onemember of the station?s Expedition 16 crew during their planned 11-day mission.
Frick andhis crewmates are due to arrive here at KSC today at about 12:30 p.m. EST (1730GMT) as NASA prepares to begin the countdown for Atlantis? launch at 7:00 p.m.EST (2300 GMT).
Atlantis?STS-122 mission will mark NASA?s fourth shuttle flight of the year and thesecond in three months to deliver a new room to the ISS.
?The teamis excited and we?re ready to go fly this vehicle on Thursday,? said Blackwell-Thompson.
NASA will broadcast Atlantis' STS-122 mission live on NASA TV. Click here for SPACE.com's STS-122 mission coverage and live NASA TV feed.
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