| Astronaut James Reilly during a space walk outside the space station on Monday. (AP)
Cape Canaveral (Florida), June 12 (AP): Space shuttle Atlantis’s astronauts will get to enjoy the view from space for a few extra days.
Nasa managers decided yesterday to extend Atlantis’s mission to the international space station from 11 to 13 days. They wanted enough time to squeeze in an extra spacewalk so astronauts can repair a wayward thermal blanket near the shuttle’s tail that peeled back during launch on Friday.
Engineers at Johnson Space Center already were practicing techniques on mock-ups to use for the blanket repair. The thermal blankets are used to protect the shuttle from searing heat during re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.
“It was a 100 per cent consensus that the unknowns of the engineering analysis and the potential damage ... under the blanket was unacceptable and we should go in and fix it if we could,” said John Shannon, chairman of the mission management team.
Engineers did not think the intense heat generated by re-entry could burn through the graphite structure underneath the blanket and jeopardise the spacecraft or the lives of astronauts. But they worried it might cause some damage that would require repairs on the ground.
With three additional shuttle flights to the space station planned this year, Nasa cannot afford delays. During the repair, an astronaut will probably reach the blanket, located near Atlantis’s tail, by attaching himself to the end of the shuttle’s robotic arm and boom.
No decision had been made on whether the loosened blanket, covering a 10-by-15-cm area over a pod for engines, will be repaired during a previously planned third spacewalk or a fourth, extra one.
“We think that if ... we can secure it somehow, we don’t have to worry about that blanket anymore,” Shannon said. The rest of the shuttle appeared to be in fine shape, Shannon said. Mission Control today planned to begin remotely unfolding a pair of solar arrays, which two astronauts helped install on the international space station during a spacewalk yesterday.
Astronauts James Reilly and Danny Olivas removed locks and restraints on the new truss segment, which was attached earlier yesterday to the station’s girder-like backbone.
The start of the spacewalk was delayed by more than an hour because the four spinning gyroscopes that keep the space station properly positioned became overloaded.
Space shuttle Atlantis was used to help control the station’s orientation until the gyroscopes were able to take over again. The 90-metre pair of arrays will be deployed from its storage box on the new segment slowly.