NASA: What Struck Endeavour?

Endeavour astronauts inspected the space shuttle's heat shield Wednesday, while NASA puzzled over a mysterious piece of debris that may have struck the shuttle's nose just after launch.

Officials at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas refused to speculate on the origin or even the size of the debris captured on camera 10 seconds after launch. Nor are they sure if it struck the shuttle.

"It looks like it's not coming from the orbiter, and you can't really tell if it strikes the orbiter or not," flight director Mike Moses told reporters after viewing video of the debris.

"I can't even begin to speculate on what it could be," Moses said, stressing that specialists would be analyzing it in great detail.

"We should let the experts do the math. We got some good video that at least shows it in multiple frames so they'll be able to do a trajectory analysis to see where it came from," he said.

If the mysterious 10-second debris did hit the shuttle's nose, it was unlikely to have done much damage because the velocity of the vehicle was relatively slow at that point, he said.

The seven-man Endeavour crew spent a busy first day in space and appeared to be adjusting well to zero gravity, Moses said.

They used an orbital boom sensor system and hand-held cameras to collect images of the shuttle's underside, nose cap and leading wing edges.

The pictures will be painstaking compared with ones taken before launch to see if the thermal tiles that protect the shuttle from the heat of re-entry into Earth's atmosphere were damaged on ascent.

The procedure is now routine since a piece of debris damaged space shuttle Colombia causing it to burn up on its return to Earth in 2003, killing all seven astronauts on board and grounding the shuttle program for two years.

"By tomorrow night we should have a real good idea about the state of the orbiter," Moses said, adding that early assessments showed nothing of concern.

In addition to inspecting the heat shield the crew was preparing for rendezvous and docking at the space station, expected at 11:25 p.m. Wednesday (0325 GMT Thursday).

They also inspected spacesuits to be used during space walks and even had time to activate a scientific experiment on how viruses behave and potentially alter themselves in zero gravity, Moses said.

Endeavour soared into space early Tuesday carrying parts of a Japanese laboratory that is to become the largest and last research module of the International Space Station.

Endeavour will also deliver a piece of hardware from Canada -- a component for the robotic arm named Dextre, which is used for delicate tasks normally reserved for an astronaut on a space walk.

The 16-day mission is the longest at the ISS and will see members of the seven-man crew, which includes Japanese astronaut Takao Doi, venture out on five space walks, totalling about 30 hours of work.


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