Astronauts use robot arm for shuttle safety scan

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DALLAS, Oct 24 (Reuters) Astronauts using a robot arm scanned the space shuttle Discovery's heat shield for damage today as the orbiter headed toward a rendezvous with the International Space Station.

''Everything is going extremely well,'' flight director Rick LaBrode told a press briefing at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Astronauts spent the morning remotely maneuvering the arm to slowly inspect the shuttle wings and nose in a now mandatory post-launch routine begun after space shuttle Columbia broke apart while returning to Earth in 2003.

The scan, which took several hours, looked for any damage to the heat shield that might have occurred when Discovery hurtled into space from Florida yesterday. Data collected will be beamed back to Earth for study by NASA engineers.

Columbia was doomed by a hole in its wing heat shield from a blow by fuel tank insulation foam that broke loose during takeoff. The damage was not detected and the shuttle was destroyed by the high heat of re-entry into the atmosphere, killing the seven astronauts on board.

Loose tank foam has been a recurring problem on shuttle flights. NASA says it cannot be eliminated, but it has taken many steps to reduce the danger.

Video of yesterday's liftoff showed several pieces of insulation flying off the tank late in the ascent when debris strikes pose less danger because they occur with less force.

The space station crew was also scheduled today to install a center line berthing camera. It is a key part of the orbiter's docking system that helps line things up when it docks with the space station.

Discovery is scheduled to link up with the space station tomorrow on a construction mission that sets the stage for the addition of European and Japanese laboratories to the outpost.

The shuttle is carrying the 24-feet-long Harmony, an Italian-built unit that will be installed on the station and to which Europe's Columbus and Japan's Kibo modules will be attached on space missions starting in December.

Five spacewalks are planned during Discovery's 10-day stay.

The mission's other major project is to reposition a solar power panel that has been in a temporary location.

The seven-member shuttle crew is led by retired US Air Force Col Pam Melroy. They will link up with a space station crew led by NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson.

Reuters AK VP0100

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