RPM images show two protruding gap fillers, small damage

by Chris Bergin

As is now commonplace for shuttle missions, Atlantis has two protruding gap fillers on her belly, as the first set of high resolution images from Flight Day 3’s (Rendezvous Pitch Maneuver) undergo evaluations.

The images – acquired first by NASASpaceflight.com, Sunday – also show similar damage to a tile near the port ET door as was seen on Discovery during STS-116, along with an area of interest on Atlantis’ vertical stabilizer (tail) – noted as a frayed area on the Vertical Splitline Thermal Barrier.

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The RPM came before Sunday’s successful docking with the International Space Station (ISS), allowing for photography to be taken of Atlantis’ belly – along with other areas of the Thermal Protection System (TPS) for analysis on the ground.

The images were uplinked to the large team of imagery experts, who have already started to pour over the high resolution photos that were taken by Expedition 15 crew members from the ISS.

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Shuttle manager John Shannon noted that he had observed some of the images before conducting a press briefing, mentioning that he had seen a protruding gap filler on photos that had just been received.

A set of 10 RPM images acquired by this site’s L2 section show two gap fillers protruding from Atlantis, along with other areas of interest. None are deemed to be a cause for concern at this time.

Seen so far on the images are a ‘pillow’ gap filler, which is protruding at the RCC (Reinforced Carbon Carbon) arrowhead location, observed as sticking out of Atlantis’ belly by only 0.69 inches.

This was the first gap filler to be spotted. Its location isn’t clear, although it’s believed to be near the nose gear doors. The second ‘Ames’ gap filler is protruding 2.1 inches on the aft stub of the orbiter.

The tile damage on the aft section of Atlantis’ belly is similar to that seen on Discovery during STS-116. Ironically, given no foam debris was noted to have hit that area, the same situation may have occurred on Atlantis, with SRB debris riding up the airstream during STS-116’s ascent to hit the belly of the orbiter.

‘Tile substrate is exposed. Tile is damaged adjacent to ET thermal barrier,’ added NASA information that accompanied the images. ‘Unable to determine from 2D imagery if flowpath exists.

‘Dimensions given are for one single damage site, but damage can be separated into two separate parts. Forward-most part of damage is 1.73 inches L x 0.62 inches W. The aft-most portion is 1.22 inches L x 0.3 inches W.

‘Damage is not adjacent to ET door thermal barrier. Damage extends through 2 tiles.’

The area of interest on Atlantis’ vertical stabilizer (tail) – on the Vertical Splitline Thermal Barrier – is simply noted as ‘Left side of splitline thermal barrier is frayed.’ No notes of concern have been raised in relation to this at present.

More images are expected, although it is thought that there are no other areas of interest, which would confirm Atlantis is a relatively clear bird. This correlates with the lack of debris being observed via the ET camera during ascent, as the repaired ET-124 performed better than all previous Return To Flight tanks.

This leaves the Port OMS Pod as the main area of interest at present, as reported on Saturday. However, it’s not just the raised blanket that is being looked at, following new information on Sunday that the same OMS Pod was suffering from increased icing.

‘Possible ice formation from water spray boiler vents in OMS Pod crotch area,’ was seen in images acquired by this site’s L2 section. However, this issue has not affected performance.

As STS-117 moves into Flight Day 4, the first of three scheduled spacewalks (EVAs) will take place, as the installation of the S3/S4 truss segment becomes the main focus of attention.

Flight Day 4 activities include: Station robot arm installs S3/S4 truss on the S1 truss. Reilly and Olivas EVA #1 to connect S1/S3 power cables, release launch constraints, release solar array blanket box restraints and install Solar Alpha Rotary Joint Drive Lock Assemblies. S3 truss and S4 electrical channel 3A and 1A activation.

Shannon noted that continued evaluations will continue in parallel – without focus being taken away from the primary mission objectives – in regards to the OMS Pod blanket issue.

Whether it wil require repair is still being evaluated, although a huge presentation acquired by this site showed that historical damage to the OMS Pod over previous missions has been far more extensive than observed with Atlantis.

The evaluations are looking at thermal conditions that will be experienced by the raised blanket, which could translate to the exposed graphite expoxy shell during re-entry.

A decision will be made nearer the end of the docked phase of the mission, in time for an EVA to repair the area via simply tucking the blanket back in place, via current repair capabilities onboard Atlantis, or leaving it ‘as-is.’

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