The U.S. space agency NASA has cleared the space shuttle Atlantis for landing Thursday morning. The decision was made after the crew completed a major inspection of the vehicle for any potential damage from floating debris.
The space shuttle Atlantis was originally scheduled to re-enter Earth's atmosphere and return to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Wednesday, after a successful mission to the International Space Station. But NASA postponed the landing because of bad weather over the Florida landing site and mysterious debris that was spotted floating alongside Atlantis.
The shuttle's six-member crew spent several hours Wednesday inspecting the vehicle's heat shield, nose-cone and wings, using a camera and special sensors attached to the shuttle's 15-meter long robotic arm. They were searching for any damage to the heat shield.
NASA officials concluded the debris was likely a plastic separator, or shim, from the shuttle's ceramic tile heat shield. The shim apparently came loose Tuesday during a test of the orbiter's flight systems. The crew also reported seeing three other pieces of debris floating near Atlantis during the inspection.
Shuttle flight director Paul Dye said debris is a common occurrence during space shuttle missions. "It's not uncommon to see little bits and pieces of things floating out," said Dye. "A lot of times it's ice, a lot of times it's a little piece of lint. It's amazing how something in bright sunlight can look much bigger than it really is. So it's very hard to identify what those little things might be."
After looking over the data from the inspection, NASA officials announced the shuttle was unharmed, and scheduled Atlantis's landing for Thursday.
Atlantis is completing a successful 11-day mission that resumed construction on the International Space Station for the first time since 2003 when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated in the Earth's atmosphere.
Meanwhile, the new crew of the International Space Station (ISS) arrived Wednesday aboard a Russian spacecraft. American Michael Lopez-Alegria and Russian Mikhail Tyurin will spend the next six months aboard the orbital outpost. They were accompanied by Anousheh Ansari, an Iranian-born U.S. citizen and businesswoman who will spend nine days aboard the ISS as a spaceflight participant.
Ansari is the first woman to travel to the station under a contract with the Russian space agency.