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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 April 2007, 09:33 GMT 10:33 UK
Nasa delays Europe's lab launch
By Irene Klotz
Cape Canaveral, Florida

Space Shuttle Atlantis
The Atlantis Space Shuttle was damaged in a hail storm in February
US space agency Nasa has delayed the launch of Europe's Columbus module to the International Space Station (ISS).

Europe's largest single contribution to the ISS has been rescheduled for lift-off no earlier than 6 December.

The delay to the launch of the orbiting lab was one of six announced by Nasa, due to damage sustained by the Atlantis Shuttle in a hail storm in February.

Cargo has also been shifted between missions. Columbus will now fly on the Atlantis Shuttle instead of Discovery.

Cautious approach

Atlantis was to carry the station's next set of solar wing panels to the ISS in March but a freak hail storm dropped ice chunks as big as golf balls on the shuttle, damaging the ship's fuel tank.

The ship was at the launch pad for flight preparations when the storm hit.

ISS

Hopes for a quick recovery faded as inspections revealed extensive damage to the tank's insulation foam.

Nasa has been particularly sensitive about shuttle tank safety since losing Columbia and seven astronauts in 2003 as a result of a debris strike from tank foam insulation.

The impact, which occurred during lift-off, damaged the shuttle's heat shield, which failed as Columbia soared through the atmosphere.

With temperatures reaching as hot as the surface of the Sun, the ship broke apart, dooming the astronauts.

Atlantis' flight has been rescheduled for no earlier than 8 June, effectively bumping a fifth mission from this year's flight roster and jeopardizing the Columbus module launch on what would be the fourth and final flight of the year.

The module is at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida where it is being prepared for launch.

"Flying four flights is not outside the realm of possibility, but we want to do this in a safe and orderly manner and we'll just see how it works out," said shuttle programme manager Wayne Hale.

Work to repair the shuttle's fuel tank is under way in Florida. Engineers have identified 2,664 dings, gouges and other damage sites that need to be fixed before the shuttle can fly, said John Honeycutt, an external tank program manager.

Some areas are so heavily pitted that technicians will apply a new layer of foam rather than attempt individual repairs, he added.

Nasa must also prove that the repaired areas will be safe to fly.

Bill Gerstenmaier, the associate administrator for spaceflight, said he expects the shuttle programme to digest the delays within a year or so and that there will still be enough time to complete the space station assembly before the shuttles are retired in 2010.




SEE ALSO
Nasa aims for June shuttle launch
11 Apr 07 |  Science/Nature
Atlantis orbiter rolled off pad
05 Mar 07 |  Americas
Problem delays US shuttle launch
13 Jul 05 |  Science/Nature

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