Space Shuttle Endeavour launched an hour or so ago from Kennedy Space Center on its delayed STS-127 mission. This was the sixth launch attempt for this mission, the previous five tries having been scrubbed for a mixture of technical and weather reasons.
At first sight, the launch looked flawless. However, as slow motion replays became available shortly after Endeavour entered orbit, it quickly became apparent that the shuttle had suffered as many as a dozen debris impacts. Some of these occurred during the crucial two minute window following launch, when the air is thick enough to slow pieces of debris down to the extent that they can damage the orbiter (delta velocity, for all you Physics nuts).
To my untrained eye, it seemed that the volume of debris (possibly a combination of foam and ice) exceeded what we have seen on previous launches, perhaps even as far back as the ‘return to flight’ mission following the Columbia disaster – itself the result of a fatal debris strike.
On the plus side, it does not appear that any of the debris struck the areas of the shuttle that are exposed to the highest temperatures during re-entry (2300 °F and up) – namely the wing leading edges and nose cap. This photo suggests that the damage was done to several of the heat shield tiles on Endeavour’s underside.
NASA plans to assess the extent of the damage using the routine procedures that were introduced into the standard shuttle flight plan after Columbia. These include the tile-by-tile inspection using the shuttle’s Orbital Boom Sensoring System (OBSS) that is scheduled for tomorrow, and the Rendezvous Pitch Maneuver (RPM) – the belly-flip that Endeavour will perform just before docking with the International Space Station on Friday, giving astronauts aboard the ISS an opportunity to capture HD imagery of the heat shield. In addition, NASA engineers can look forward to several days pouring over numerous frame-by-frame replays of the launch.
Check out Spaceflight Now for complete coverage, and stay tuned……
P.S. I guess I should have added that it may be possible to see Endeavour chasing the ISS across the late evening sky later this week (depending on where you are in the world).
However, for the continental US, the best opportunities to see the shuttle-station show in all its glory will come after Endeavour undocks from the ISS towards the end of this month.
For full details, see Heavens Above.