Space shuttle Atlantis returned to Earth with tiny, non-threatening hole, NASA officials say

Friday, October 6th 2006, 6:23 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) A tiny piece of space debris punctured a hole in the shuttle Atlantis during its recent mission, causing slight damage significant by historical standards but not threatening to the crew, The New York Times reported in Friday's editions.

NASA officials said a micrometeoroid struck a radiator panel that extends from payload bay doors on the shuttle, which returned to Earth last month. The object did not hit the sensitive tiles or thermal panels that help protect the shuttle during its descent. Payload bay doors stay open during missions to lower heat produced by the shuttle.

James Hartsfield, a NASA spokesman, told the Times it was ``the second most damaging particle that we've encountered in the program,'' but that the damage ``posed no danger to the crew and no change to the mission.''

The particle left a hole about a tenth of an inch in diameter at the point of entry. Within the radiator, where the particle shattered, the damage was about an inch around and a half inch deep. The exit hole was three hundredths of an inch in diameter, and, also on that side of the radiator, there was a crack measuring two-tenths of an inch.

The hole's existence was first reported Thursday on NASA's Web site.

Superheated plasma that entered a hole in a wing caused the Columbia shuttle disaster in 2003. But because the radiators were brought inside the bay before Atlantis returned to Earth, the part that was damaged did not encounter searing heat.