Cape Canaveral, Florida: Bad weather forced NASA to abandon plans to land the space shuttle Atlantis in Florida on Thursday, keeping the ship’s seven astronauts in orbit for at least another day.
The shuttle had two windows of opportunity to return to Earth on Thursday, but rain and low clouds scuttled both attempts to land at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral.
“The rain shower and the (cloud) ceiling are going to keep us from making it in Florida today,” a flight controller said from the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
Clouds below 2,400 metres block visibility too much for the ship’s pilot to be able to maneuver the shuttle into the correct position for a landing. The shuttle has no engines, making steering difficult.
NASA will now try again Friday when the crew will attempt to land in Florida at 1818 GMT and, if the weather has not improved, again at 1949 GMT at the Edwards Air Force Base California.
The shuttle could only have a small window of opportunity to land with weather conditions set to worsen on Saturday in Florida and also due to deteriorate late Friday in California.
NASA wants to land Atlantis by Saturday as the shuttle’s hydrogen batteries providing its electric power would have just one more day of life.
Other possible landing times on Friday are 1954 GMT in Florida and 2124 GMT and 2259 GMT at Edwards air base.
NASA prefers to land the shuttle in Florida as it costs nearly two million dollars to return it to its launch base piggybacked atop a Boeing 747 and would affect the schedule of future missions.
Earlier Thursday the shuttle’s cargo doors were closed in preparation for its descent, 13 days after blasting off on a mission to install new solar panels on the International Space Station (ISS).
Atlantis commander Rick Sturckow and pilot Lee Archambault had waited for the green light to fire thrusters to slow down the orbiter, which reaches speeds of more than 26,000 km (16,000 miles) per hour.
Atlantis undocked from the ISS on Tuesday after astronauts successfully installed a new 16-tonne truss segment expanding the orbiting laboratory with a new set of power-generating solar arrays that will track the Sun.
The astronauts ventured out of the ISS on four spacewalks to install the new segment and fix a thermal blanket protecting the shuttle.
The mission was also marked by the unprecedented collapse of Russian computers controlling the space station’s orientation and altitude. The computers were fixed and passed a key test this week.
Atlantis, which launched on June 8, also brought a new crew member for the ISS, American astronaut Clayton Anderson, who joined two Russian cosmonauts and will stay aboard the orbiting research lab for four months.
Anderson replaced US colleague Sunita Williams, who set the record for the longest uninterrupted space flight by a woman, surpassing the 188-day and four-hour mark set by her compatriot Shannon Lucid in 1996.
NASA plans to launch at least 12 more shuttle missions, including three this year, as it races to finish building the 100-billion-dollar ISS by 2010, when the US space agency retires its three orbiters.
NASA considers the station a vital part of US ambitions to send a manned mission to Mars.