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New crack found on shuttle Discovery

By David Santucci
CNN

Shuttle Columbia before an earlier launch from Kennedy Space Center
Shuttle Columbia before an earlier launch from Kennedy Space Center

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(CNN) -- NASA investigators are trying to determine whether a crack found this week in the space shuttle Discovery is a fleet-wide problem.

The problem has the potential of grounding the next shuttle flight, of Columbia, scheduled for January 16.

During a routine inspection Monday, space shuttle engineers discovered the crack on the surface of a baseball-sized metal ball inside a pipe that feeds super-cold liquid oxygen to the main engines.

The ball is part of a structure that supports the exterior of the pipe when it flexes during launch.

Engineers fear that a piece of the ball could break off and travel down into one of the three main shuttle engines and cause an explosion.

NASA has assembled a team to make an in-depth analysis of the problem.

In addition to looking at Discovery, NASA will inspect Atlantis and Endeavour for similar cracks. Columbia is already sitting on the launch pad for its January launch, making it difficult to inspect.

The best way to examine the area in question is to remove the engines, shuttle managers said.

Discovery is the most used space shuttle with 30 flights under its belt. The damaged ball is an original part on the 19-year-old shuttle.

Last summer, cracks were discovered in a different part of the shuttle's fuel system, causing the fleet to be grounded for several months.

Columbia's January science mission is to carry the first Israeli astronaut into space. Preparations for the launch continue while shuttle managers try to determine if the problem will force a delay.



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