Although NASA’s aging fleet of space shuttles are due to be withdrawn from service in 2011, potentially forced early retirement could be looming after engineers working on the Discovery uncovered a fresh batch of structural flaws on its external fuel tank.
According to an AFP report citing official NASA confirmation, four small cracks have been located on the external fuel tank’s metal support struts, which will apparently require two or three days to remedy.
Initially shunted back from its November 5 launch date due to inclement weather and technical issues, the shuttle suffered a more significant stream of delays following the discovery of damage to the fuel tank’s foam insulation, which, in turn, led engineers to find worrying cracks in the tank’s aluminium skin.
Once safely airborne, Discovery will spend a total of 11 days re-supplying the International Space Station, during which time it will deliver a robotic assistant and install a new storage capsule.
The Discovery is presently housed within the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, where teams are scanning the orbiter, its external fuel tank and the two solid rocket boosters for further possible damage.
NASA presently has Discovery’s final mission (STS-133) pencilled in for a tentative launch on February 3.