Nicks minor on Atlantis shuttle: NASA

BEIJING, May 13 (Xinhuanet) -- Atlantis astronauts discovered a nearly 2-foot stretch of nicks on their space shuttle during a heat shield inspection as they race toward the Hubble Space Telescope, but NASA said the damage "to the thick tiles is minor."

A NASA graphic shows an impact event believed responsible for damage along an area of about 21 inches (53 cm) spanning four of space shuttle Atlantis' thermal tiles in this image from NASA TV May 12, 2009. The Atlantis astronauts have uncovered a long stretch of nicks on their space shuttle, the result of launch debris. NASA says the damage does not appear to be serious. (Xinhua/Reuters Photo)

A NASA graphic shows an impact event believed responsible 
for damage along an area of about 21 inches (53 cm) spanning
four of space shuttle Atlantis' thermal tiles in this image
from NASA TV May 12, 2009. The Atlantis astronauts have uncovered
a long stretch of nicks on their space shuttle, the result of
launch debris. NASA says the damage does not appear to be serious.
(Xinhua/Reuters Photo)

The nicks were caused by launch debris that fell from the shuttle's external tank as Atlantis rocketed toward Hubble Monday afternoon.

NASA managers late Tuesday indicated that the problem was minor and wouldn't require much more examination. They said this type of damage looks similar to nicks seen in the past five or six missions that were safe.

"The area is not as critical" as other parts on the shuttle wing, deputy shuttle program manager LeRoy Cain said in a Tuesday afternoon news conference. "The damage itself appears to be relatively shallow and it's not a very large area of damage."

Lead shuttle flight director Tony Ceccacci said the nicks are spread across a 21-inch (53-cm) area that includes four heat-resistant tiles. They are located on the bottom right side of Atlantis just ahead of where the shuttle's body meets its starboard wing.

"They looked very minor, but we're going to let the folks go ahead and take a look at it, follow the standard process and determine what to do next on it," Ceccacci said.

The space shuttle Atlantis lifted off Monday with seven-member crew onboard from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The mission is aimed at upgrading the 19-year-old Hubble Space Telescope for the last time.

Editor: Yang Jie | Source: Xinhua