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Weather Outlook Improves for Thursday Shuttle Launch

Weather Looks Good for Thursday Space Shuttle Launch
Platforms are extended toward Space Shuttle Atlantis from the fixed service structure, as processing begins for Atlantis' launch to the International Space Station on mission STS-122, targeted for Dec. 6. (Image credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett)

CAPECANAVERAL, Fla - The weather outlook has improved slightly for this week?splanned launch of the shuttle Atlantis and a European lab to the InternationalSpace Station (ISS), NASA officials said Tuesday.

Atlantisand its seven-astronaut crew now have a 90 percent chance of favorable weatherconditions for their Thursdayafternoon launch toward the ISS, with top shuttle officials discussingplans for the upcoming space shot here at NASA?s Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

?We areoptimistic about the weather on Thursday,? said shuttle weather officer KathyWinters, of the U.S. Air Force?s 45th Weather Squadron, in a morningstatus briefing.

Winterssaid the possibility of a low cloud layer thwarting Thursday?s planned 4:31p.m. EST (2131 GMT) liftoff from Launch Pad 39A dropped slightly, which allowedAtlantis? flight chances to improve by 10 percent.

Commandedby veteranshuttle flyer Stephen Frick, Atlantis? STS-122 astronauts will deliver theEuropean Space Agency?s Columbus laboratory to the ISS, swap out one member ofthe station?s Expedition 16 crew and stage three spacewalks to upgrade theoutpost with new hardware and experiments during their planned11-day mission.

Latertoday, shuttle engineers will load Atlantis with the super-chilled liquidhydrogen and liquid oxygen used to power the orbiter?s three fuel cells duringits space station construction flight.

Top shuttleofficials are also holding their traditional Launch Readiness Review today todetermine whether the orbiter is indeed ready for liftoff. They will announce theirdecision during a press briefing to begin no earlier than 4:00 p.m. EST (2100GMT).

?At thispoint, I?m happy to report that we have no issues whatsoever,? NASA testdirector Steve Payne told reporters today. ?The countdown is going nicely andthe flight crew is ready to go and eager for Thursday?s launch.?

Engineerscompleted last-minute repairs to threeminor dings near the top of Atlantis? foam-covered fuel tank Mondayafternoon, he added.

?Theyturned out well,? Payne said, adding that the repairs have already beenapproved for flight. ?They were so slight that it took a really closeinspection to detect them in the first place.?

NASA has aslim launch window that closes Dec. 13 in which to launch Atlantis while theangles between the space station?s solar arrays and the sun are favorable tosupport docked operations. The agency is prepared to make four launch attemptsin five days before standing down to top off Atlantis? liquid hydrogen andoxygen supply, Payne said.

If theshuttle launches early in its window and its power supplies hold out, NASAcould extend the STS-122 mission two extra days and add a fourth spacewalk toinspect a balkyISS solar array joint.

?Obviously,we want to have a good load and launch as early as possible,? Payne said. ?Thursdayis our goal.?

NASAwill broadcast Atlantis' STS-122 mission live on NASA TV. Click here for SPACE.com's shuttle mission coverage and NASATV feed.

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Tariq Malik
Tariq Malik

Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of Space.com 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 Space.com's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining Space.com, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. 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. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter.