New Cracks Discovered in Space Shuttle's Fuel Tank

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NASA has found several small cracks in the space shuttle's external fuel tank, the space agency said Thursday.

Discovery was scheduled to take off Nov. 5 on its final mission to the International Space Station, a flight that was delayed until Nov. 30 following discovery of a fuel leak, and postponed to February after cracks were found in the fuel tank. Thursday afternoon NASA said it had found new cracks in the tank, though these may not lead to delays.

Technicians in the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida found the small cracks following the latest round of X-ray image scans of space shuttle Discovery's external fuel tank.

NASA has not yet decided whether the newest cracks, detected on the tops of three "stringers" on panel 6, which is on the opposite side of the tank from Discovery, will affect future plans. Stringers are aluminum strips between the liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen parts of the fuel tank, designed to provide structural integrity.

Space Shuttle Program managers are meeting Thursday afternoon to decide whether testing and analysis indicate modifications are needed on some of the stringers. If required, modifications would begin January 3. But even if these stringers require strengthening, the schedule for launch February 3 probably won't be affected, Kyle Herring, space shuttle program public affairs officer, told

Similar issues have affected launch attempts during two previous shuttle missions, both in 2009. In the past, crews have repaired cracks in the external tank by removing the cracked aluminum and replacing it with a "doubler" -- a twice-as-thick section -- before replacing the foam insulation.

When the tank is ready, Discovery will fly an 11-day supply mission to the International Space Station to deliver a humanoid robot helper for the station crew and a new storage room for the orbiting lab. The orbiter has already faced down a series of setbacks, including a pair of gas leaks, an electrical glitch and, most recently, uncooperative weather.

The STS-133 mission will be Discovery's grand finale in space before being retired along with the rest of NASA's shuttle fleet in 2011.