NASA engineers could launch Atlantis by Saturday


Washington : NASA engineers will meet Friday to discuss an unresolved fuel circuitry problem that grounded the space shuttle Atlantis on Thursday, and may resume the mission as early as Saturday.

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The 11-day mission, set to launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on Thursday morning, was postponed at the last minute after several of shuttle’s fuel sensors gave false readings that the exterior fuel tank’s liquid hydrogen levels were empty.

The sensors are part of backup safety system that triggers the shuttle’s main engine to shutdown if fuel levels read low. If faulty sensors fail to read when the fuel tank is low, the shuttle’s engines could continue to run dry and trigger an explosion. This is a recurring problem since the Columbia shuttle disaster in 2003.

NASA’s Mission Management Team will discuss launching the Atlantis shuttle as early as Saturday in its current state, or consider other options. Engineers have pinpointed the problem to an open circuit in the wiring between the electric box in the shuttle’s engine and the sensors at base of the fuel tank, but due to time constraints they’ve ruled out major inspections or repairs.

NASA has until December 13 to launch Atlantis because of temperature and power constraints with the International Space Station (ISS). The next launch would likely be pushed back to next year.

The on board the Atlantis shuttle is the latest addition to the ISS, the Columbus laboratory module. It is first permanent module for the European Space Agency, and the second module to be added to the International Space Station, following the installation of the Harmony module in November.