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NASA astronauts use robot to inspect shuttle

In second day in orbit, shuttle Endeavour gets critical heat shield check

Astronauts on NASA's space shuttle Endeavour are using the spacecraft's robotic arm to inspect the shuttle's heat shield for damage today.

This is the Endeavour's second day in orbit. The shuttle lifted off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida Monday morning. The six-man shuttle crew is on a 16-day mission to bring equipment, experiments and spare parts to the International Space Station.

This is Endeavour's last space flight before the shuttle is retired. Next month, space shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to go up on its final flight, marking the official retirement of NASA's entire shuttle fleet.

On their first full day in orbit, the shuttle crew is using the 50-foot Orbiter Boom Sensor System attached to the end of Endeavour's robotic arm to take images of the spacecraft's wings and nosecap. They're inspecting the vehicle's thermal protection system tiles and reinforced carbon panels for any damage that might have occurred during takeoff. The inspection, which is standard procedure following any shuttle launch, uses cameras and lasers at the end of the boom to provide 3-D views of the shuttle.

The images will be sent to NASA's ground facilities, where engineers inspect them for any problems with the shuttle's thermal protection system. That system is needed to protect the spacecraft during the blazing temperatures it will encounter upon re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere.

The shuttle's robotic arm is a critical piece of machinery for the astronauts. They use it to inspect the space station during fly-bys, as well as to work "hand-in-hand" with the robots on the space station to unload massive pieces of equipment and move them around during spacewalks.

During today's inspection, shuttle astronauts Mike Fincke and Drew Feustel will work on preparing the spacesuits that will be transferred to the space station for use during the mission's four spacewalks.

Endeavour is bringing up an interesting variety of equipment to the space station.

For instance, while it's carrying an S-bad communications antenna, the shuttle also is holding spare parts for the station's Dextre robotic arm, along with a spare arm and hand for the humanoid robot that recently took up residence on the orbiting station.

And Endeavour is bringing three satellite prototypes aloft. The thumbnail-sized satellites will be attached to the outside of the space station where they are expected to work for several years, collecting data on solar winds. Scientists hope that within 10 years a fleet of these tiny satellites will be released to travel solar winds all the way to Saturn.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com .

Read more about emerging technologies in Computerworld's Emerging Technologies Topic Center.

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