Shuttle set to fly again in June

Freak damage from giant hailstones forced Nasa yesterday to postpone the next shuttle launch until June. Engineers had hoped to repair dents in the main fuel tank in time for their ship to fly this month. But they have found 2,664 separate pits and gouges in the tank.

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Atlantis was due to blast off last month to continue construction work on the international space station.

But a severe storm struck while the spacecraft was standing on launchpad 39A at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida in late February.

Hailstones up to an inch and a half in diameter were found surrounding the launchpad after the storm. Atlantis itself was largely unscathed thanks to protective shields. Just a few heat tiles were scraped by bouncing hailstones.

Shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said he hoped to roll Atlantis back to the pad as early May 6 but it would be launched no earlier than June 8.

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By Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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