NASA: Discovery Astronauts Use Robotic Arm to Check Shuttle

Image courtesy LIFE. Click to Zoom.
Astronauts aboard Discovery are using the vehicle's robotic arm today to inspect the shuttle for any damage to its exterior during Thursday's launch into orbit.

The space shuttle, which will take two days to reach the space station, blasted off for its 39th and final journey into space right on time yesterday afternoon. Discovery now is one day into an 11-day mission geared to bring a humanoid robot called Robonaut 2, spare parts and several scientific experiments up to the International Space Station.

One of the astronauts' main jobs today will be to use the shuttle's robotic arm , along with its 50-foot-long orbiter boom sensor system, to take pictures of Discovery's wings and nosecap.

They're inspecting the vehicle's thermal protection system tiles and reinforced carbon panels for any damage that might have occurred during takeoff. The inspection, which is standard procedure following any shuttle launch, uses cameras and lasers at the end of the boom to provide 3-D views of the shuttle.

NASA officials said that during the inspection they will be paying particular attention to an area where several pieces of foam insulation broke off from the shuttle's external fuel tank during the launch. When the pieces were ripped off, they hit the under side of the shuttle.

The images taken during the inspection will be sent to NASA's ground facilities, where engineers will inspect them for any problems with the shuttle's thermal protection system. That system is needed to protect the spacecraft during the blazing temperatures it will encounter upon re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere.

NASA mission managers reported after the launch that they're paying attention to the foam issue but are not overly concerned.

While the heat shield inspection is under way, several astronauts will work to prep the spacesuits that will be used during the mission's two spacewalks.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com .

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