January 3, 2008 / 10:47 PM / 12 years ago

NASA hopes to launch space shuttle launch Jan. 24

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) - NASA will try to launch the space shuttle Atlantis as early as Jan. 24 on a delayed mission to deliver Europe’s first permanent space laboratory to the International Space Station, mission managers said on Thursday.

But the next launch attempt was more likely to happen in early February, managers said in a conference call with reporters.

Launch attempts were postponed on Dec. 6 and Dec. 9 due to erratic sensor readings in the spacecraft’s hydrogen fuel tank. NASA had hoped to try again on Jan. 10 but decided late last month that it would need more time to fix the problem.

Atlantis’ crew, five Americans, a German and a Frenchman, are to deliver Europe’s Columbus science laboratory module to the space station, ending a quarter of a century in which European space pioneers had to run their experiments on orbital outposts owned by others.

The erratic sensors, which operate like dipsticks to determine fuel levels, are part of an emergency system to cut off the shuttle’s three hydrogen-burning main engines if the tank runs dry because of a leak or other problem.

Running the engines without fuel could cause their pumps to break and possibly trigger a catastrophic explosion.

NASA engineers decided the fuel sensor glitch resided in a plug-like connector that relays electrical signals from the sensors in the tank through wiring leading to the shuttle’s engine compartment. They removed the suspect part and took it to the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama for analysis.

“Everything has to go exactly right for us to make the 24th,” John Shannon, the deputy shuttle program manager, said during the conference call. He added that the shuttle was more likely to fly in early February.

The U.S. space agency is on deadline to complete 12 construction and resupply flights to the space station by Sept. 30, 2010, when the shuttle fleet is to be retired.

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