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NASA Examining Nicks On Shuttle Tiles

The Atlantis astronauts have uncovered a long stretch of nicks on their space shuttle, the result of launch debris.

They were inspecting their ship Tuesday for signs of launch damage when they came across the nicks. Mission Control informed the crew that it's a 21-inch stretch of nicks over four to five thermal tiles on the right side of Atlantis. The damage is where the right wing joins the fuselage.

Mission Control says it could be related to debris that came off the fuel tank almost two minutes after liftoff.

NASA says the damage does not appear to be serious, but more analysis is needed.

CBS News correspondent Daniel Seiberg reports a far more serious debris strike on a very sensitive part of the wing is what crippled Columbia's heat shield in 2003, causing it to break up during re-entry. All seven astronauts onboard were killed.

Atlantis blasted off Monday on a risky repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope. Endeavour is on standby in case a rescue is needed.

This final trip to Hubble is especially dangerous because of all the space junk in the telescope's 350-mile-high orbit. Atlantis seems to have come through its launch fairly well, at least. But the analysis is continuing.

Photos: Atlantis Blasts Off

Atlantis will catch up to Hubble on Wednesday.

The 19-year-old Hubble, last visited by astronauts seven years ago, is way overdue for a tune-up. The space telescope was launched amid considerable hoopla in 1990, but quickly found to be nearsighted because of a flawed mirror. Corrective lenses were installed in 1993 during what NASA's science mission chief Ed Weiler calls the "miracle in space" mission.

The results were stunning and included the acclaimed "pillars of creation" image of Eagle Nebula, a star-forming region 6,500 light years away.

On this fifth and final repair mission, Atlantis' crew will replace Hubble's batteries and gyroscopes, install two new cameras and take a crack at fixing two broken science instruments, something never before attempted. Those instruments, loaded with bolts and fasteners, were not designed to be tinkered with in space.

They also will remove the command and data-handling unit that failed in September and had to be revived, and put in a spare that was hustled into operation. Fresh insulating covers will be added to the outside of the telescope, and a new fine guidance sensor for pointing will be hooked up.

Five spacewalks will be needed to accomplish everything. The work is so tricky and intricate that two of the repairmen are Hubble veterans, John Grunsfeld and Michael Massimino. Grunsfeld, the chief repairman, is making an unprecedented third trip to the telescope.

For more info:

  • Hubble Space Telescope
  • CBS News space analyst Bill Harwood's "Space Place" updates
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