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Nasa hopeful of late 2004 launch

04 December 2003

The US space agency says it is on track to launch a space shuttle into orbit in the autumn of 2004, despite lingering worries over safety.

Nasa admits it has made little progress to date in finding a way to repair the sort of damage that caused the orbiter Columbia to crash in February. The agency is carrying out tests to explore how lightweight objects can damage vehicles at supersonic speeds.

The tentative launch date for the shuttle Atlantis is 12 September. There are opportunities to launch the orbiter that extend into October, but they are restricted.

Nasa says it will only send the shuttle up in daylight now. Also, new weather requirements mean the number of possible launch days a year has been dramatically reduced. ""We have all the confidence in the world we can get there,"" shuttle programme manager Bill Parsons said. But he added: ""There are a number of areas out there that could create bumps in the road for us and we're going to have to keep a close eye on things."" He told reporters the agency had made considerable progress in devising a technique to fix holes in the silica glass fibre tiles that cover large sections of the shuttle.

Astronauts will have the capability to go outside the orbiter and inject a putty-like material into a gap that appears in these heat-resistant tiles. But Parsons said it was proving much more difficult to develop a repair kit for the reinforced carbon-carbon panels that protect the leading edges of the shuttle wings from the searing heat of re-entry.

It is thought a piece of insulation foam striking this part of the orbiter on launch created the damage that led to the 1 February loss of Columbia. The manager also said detection issues still had to be addressed.

There is now a plan to attach a boom to the end of the shuttle's robotic arm so astronauts can survey the underside of the craft with cameras and lasers to measure any dents or holes. The veteran astronaut Eileen Collins will take command of Atlantis when it flies next year. Much of the mission will focus on testing any new in-orbit repair methods.





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