Columbus launch set for 7 February
NASA managers formally set the launch date of Space Shuttle Atlantis for 7 February at 20:45 CET (14:45 Florida time). Atlantis is set to carry the European Columbus laboratory into orbit. For the latest updates, please consult the NASA website and the ESA Columbus blog.
After day-long discussions in the executive Flight Readiness Review, Shuttle engineers were given the go ahead to prepare Atlantis for the 11-day mission to the International Space Station.
Speaking at a press briefing following the review, Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for Space Operations, said quite some time was spent discussing the Engine Cut-Off sensor problem that had delayed the launch in December. "The team worked hard and has a good fix in place," he said.
Atlantis will however have to clear a new hurdle before next week's launch after a bent radiator hose was discovered inside the orbiter's payload bay. "In preparing Atlantis for flight, we wanted to inspect carefully the Freon loop hoses as we did on Discovery and saw generally the same bend in one of the four radiator retract hoses," explained Shuttle Programme Manager Wayne Hale.
The Freon loops remove heat on orbit - a critical function required for safe operation of the Shuttle. "Every time we open and close the payload bay doors, these hoses flex," Hale added. "Though it's working perfectly, we want to understand why this is happening. I feel confident we'll come to a good conclusion, but we need to be sure before going to fly."
Meanwhile, the STS-122 crew, including ESA astronauts Hans Schlegel and Léopold Eyharts, are from today quarantined in crew quarters at NASA's Johnson Space Center, in Houston. They are scheduled to fly to Kennedy Space Center on Monday 4 February in preparation for next Thursday's launch.
Managers will meet again on Saturday afternoon to evaluate the situation once more data has been collected.