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Atlantis launch scrubbed due to technical glitch
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  • CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida, Sept 6 (AFP) Sep 06, 2006
    After three delays last week due to foul weather, the launch of space shuttle Atlantis on an 11-day mission has once again been delayed for 24 hours, this time due to a technical glitch, NASA said Wednesday.

    "NASA has scrubbed the launch for 24 hours," a spokesman for the National Aeronautics and Space Administeration said early Wednesday.

    One of the three fuel cells providing electricity to the shuttle did not function well, another NASA official said.

    The Atlantis' launch on the first International Space Station (ISS) construction mission since in nearly four years had been scheduled for 12:29 pm (1629 GMT).

    Earlier Wednesday, the fueling of the shuttle's external tank had been delayed for two hours when the technical glitch was detected. It takes three hours to fill the tank with almost two million liters of liquid hydrogen and oxygen.

    Foul weather last week scuttled three attempts to launch Atlantis on its 11-day mission to the ISS.

    If the weather deteriorates again or if the technical problems persists beyond Thursday, the shuttle has another attempt to launch on Friday. Failing to launch this week could delay the Atlantis mission until late October.

    The new launch delay was taken in stride by NASA officials, even though they had been optimistic for a Wednesday launch after the weather service gave a dramatically more favorable forecast one week after Tropical Storm Ernesto swept across Florida.

    NASA is eager to launch Atlantis on the first ISS construction mission in nearly four years, following the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster which shifted the focus to improving flight safety.

    The agency to undertake 16 shuttle missions to complete the complex assembly of the half-finished space station by 2010, when the three-shuttle fleet is set to retire.

    After space shuttle Discovery returned safely in July from a second post-Columbia mission aimed at improving safety, NASA declared it was ready to resume construction of the ISS, which is a central part of US ambitions to fly humans to Mars.

    Atlantis will bring a new 16-tonne segment with two huge solar panels that will double the station's ability to produce power from sunlight and ultimately provide one-fourth of the completed ISS's power.

    Three lengthy spacewalks are planned to install the solar arrays, which are 73 meters (240 feet) long when unfurled.

    Officials said it will be the most complex work ever undertaken at the nearly eight-year-old space station and that the next few missions will only get harder.

    "We are into the heart of the station assembly and we certainly have our fingers crossed that things are going to go very well," shuttle program manager Wayne Hale told reporters Monday.

    "Clearly, these are the most complicated spacewalks and assembly tasks that have ever been done before," Hale said.

    During their 11-day mission, the six shuttle astronauts will also use a robotic arm to scan the orbiter's heat shield for potential damage from debris falling off the external fuel tank during liftoff.

    The safety check has become routine since Columbia was struck by foam that peeled off from its fuel tank during liftoff, eventually causing the shuttle to disintegrate as it returned to Earth in February 2003, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

    The concern over debris has prompted NASA to favor daytime launches, which allow it to take pictures of the liftoff to detect any foam loss. The requirement limits the available launch dates and if Atlantis does not fly this week it will not be able to launch until October 26 and 27.

    But Hale said he had tasked engineers and safety officials to review the daylight launch requirement. If the restriction is lifted, the shuttle could schedule launch attempts in late September or early October, he said.

    The Atlantis crew is commanded by Brent Jett and co-piloted by Chris Ferguson. The four mission specialists are Daniel Burbank, Heide Stefanyshyn-Piper, Joe Tanner and Canadian Steve MacLean of the Canadian Space Agency.

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