In preparation for their return to Earth on Saturday, astronauts on the shuttle Discovery used a robot arm and laser scanners to recheck their ship's heat shield for damage. The shuttle has been in orbit since March 15.
AFP - The US shuttle Discovery and its crew of seven astronauts prepared for a Saturday return to Earth after a 13-day mission in orbit including nine days at the International Space Station (ISS).
Weather forecasts remained favorable for a 1:39 pm (1739 GMT) touchdown here at the Kennedy Space Center, NASA said Friday.
"We will keep our fingers crossed" for good weather, Discovery commander Lee Archambault told mission control in Houston, Texas.
The shuttle crew spent part of Friday "checking Discovery's flight control surfaces, which will guide the orbiter's unpowered flight through Earth's atmosphere," NASA said in a statement.
The hundred-ton glider will descend for an hour from an altitude of 217 miles (350 kilometers) to reach ground level. All the maneuvers are operated automatically by onboard computers before passing over flight controls for manual descent in the final three minutes.
Commander Archambault, pilot Tony Antonelli and flight engineer Steve Swanson also "tested firing the reaction control system thrusters that control the shuttle's orientation as it attempts the landing," NASA said.
Crew members then checked for damage to the craft that may have been sustained during their flight -- a standard operating procedure after February 2003 when the Columbia shuttle disintegrated as it re-entered Earth's atmosphere, killing all seven crewmembers.
The accident was blamed on a piece of debris that broke off the external tank at launch and struck one of Columbia's wings, gouging a hole in it.
When Columbia was just minutes away from touchdown, super-heated air penetrated the aircraft's insulation and burned through the structure of the wing, eventually causing the shuttle to break up.
The shuttle program resumed with the first lift-off of Discovery in July 2005.
After packing and organizing the shuttle cabin, Discovery crew members Friday gathered on the flight deck to discuss their flight with students of Punahou School in Honolulu, Hawaii, NASA said.
Discovery docked at the ISS on March 17, two days after its launch. One of the mission's biggest tasks was to deliver the orbiting laboratory's last set of solar arrays, which were successfully unfurled Friday.
The ISS now has four solar panels, two per wing, containing 32,800 cells that convert sunlight into electricity.
They will boost the outpost's full power generation from 90 to 120 kilowatts, providing the power the space station needs to carry out scientific experiments in the European Columbus laboratory and Japan's Kibo lab.
After being delivered by Discovery, astronaut Koichi Wakata has become the first long-stay Japanese crewmember to remain on the ISS. He replaced US flight engineer Sandra Magnus, who had been on the outpost since November and is returning to Earth aboard the Discovery.
The next manned space launch, for the shuttle Atlantis, is scheduled for May 12 in a final mission to repair and maintain the Hubble space telescope.
Eight more shuttle launches are scheduled up to September 30, 2010 -- the retirement date for the orbiter crafts.
Date created : 2009-03-28