The Atlantis astronauts uncovered a 21-inch stretch of nicks on their space shuttle Tuesday, but NASA said the damage did not appear to be serious.
The damage was likely the result of debris that came off the fuel tank shortly after liftoff Monday. The astronauts were inspecting their ship while racing to the Hubble Space Telescope when they came across the nicks spread over four to five thermal tiles.
A NASA photo shows what appears to be about 10 white scuff marks — officials hadn't counted how many yet — around the edge of the shuttle where the right wing joins the fuselage and the belly curves up to the top of Atlantis.
“It doesn’t look very serious,” Mission Control's capsule communicator, Dan Burbank, told Atlantis' crew. “Those tiles are pretty thick. The nicks look to be pretty small.”
This repair mission is especially risky — a rescue shuttle is on standby for the first time ever — because of the debris-littered orbit of Hubble. Unlike other spaceflights, the astronauts can’t reach the international space station because it is in a different orbit than the telescope.
NASA managers weren't too worried Tuesday, saying this type of damage looks similar to nicks seen in the past five or six missions that were safe.
Mission flight director Tony Ceccacci told reporters that launch imagery and sensors in Atlantis' wings had indicated some impacts to the wing about 103 seconds after launch, which led engineers to take a close look at the inspection imagery. Ceccacci acknowledged that the right wing's tiles had "some dings in them," but echoed Burbank's assessment that the damage didn't appear to be serious.
Later Tuesday, deputy shuttle program manager LeRoy Cain said the area that showed damage was "not as critical" as other parts of the shuttle wing. "The damage itself appears to be relatively shallow, and it's not a very large area of damage," he said.
Damage to the shuttle during liftoff has been a worry for NASA since Columbia was doomed by a chunk of fuel-tank insulating foam that broke off during launch in 2003. Columbia’s left wing was punctured, along a vulnerable edge, and at the time NASA managers ignored an engineer's request for more photos of the damage.
On Tuesday night, capsule communicator Alan Poindexter told Atlantis' crew that there would be no need for a more detailed inspection of the nicked area. However, Poindexter pointed out that the image analysis was continuing, and he could not yet rule out a "focused inspection" of other areas of the shuttle's protective skin.
If a focused inspection is required, it would be done Friday, right before the second of five spacewalks planned for Hubble.
Even before damage was discovered, NASA was preparing shuttle Endeavour to rush to the astronauts’ rescue if needed. Nothing so far has been found that would require a rescue.
Atlantis will catch up with the 19-year-old Hubble on Wednesday. The astronauts will capture the aging observatory and, on the next day, begin the first of five grueling spacewalks to install new cameras and equipment and repair some broken science instruments.
Meanwhile, Atlantis’ launch pad took more of a beating than usual during Monday’s launch. The heat-resistant material that covers the bricks beneath the pad was blasted off a 25-square-foot (2.3-square-meter) area. Some nitrogen gas and pressurized air lines also were damaged.
The damage to the bricked flame trench — which deflect the flames at booster rocket ignition — was near a previously repaired spot but not an area severely battered last year. Monday’s damage was not as bad, said NASA spokesman Allard Beutel.
The other launch pad, where Endeavour sits, was struck twice by lightning late Monday, but the shuttle appears to have no damage because of a lightning protection system, Cain said.
This report was supplemented by msnbc.com.