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NASA Tuesday reported an engine problem that could ground space shuttle Atlantis beyond Thursday's launch date even if anti-nuclear activists lose their court challenge to stop the flight.

U.S. District Judge Oliver Gasch began hearing arguments Tuesday in Washington from attorneys representing NASA and three citizens groups seeking to halt liftoff because Atlantis will be carrying a plutonium-powered space probe.Shuttle test director Mike Leinbach said overnight checks found that a controller on one of the three main engines was giving a faulty fuel pressure reading. The device controls the engine during the liftoff burn.

Experts were analyzing the situation to see if the controller had to be replaced, a task that could take five or six days.

A decision was not expected until late Tuesday or Wednesday.

Sources said that after the first low pressure reading, four more tests were conducted, and the problem did not repeat itself.

Leinbach said other countdown tasks were proceeding normally despite four inches of rain overnight. The main job Tuesday was loading fuel aboard the shuttle's power-producing fuel cells.

The countdown ticked toward a liftoff at 1:29 p.m. Thursday with the Galileo spacecraft on board.

Opponents sought a temporary restraining order because Galileo, which Atlantis' five astronauts are to dispatch toward Jupiter, carries two generators fueled by 49.4 pounds of plutonium.

They contend an explosion like the one that destroyed the shuttle Challenger in 1986 could scatter plutonium over heavily populated east-central Florida.

NASA said that in tests, empty plutonium containers have been blown up, shot at and burned to determine how they would survive all kinds of accidents. They have withstood pressures far greater than those produced in the Challenger accident, the agency reports.

Similar devices have been carried on 22 other U.S. spacecraft without a problem.

"We're going to count down to a launch on Thursday unless we are told to stop," NASA test director Ron Phelps said Monday as the countdown started.

About 25 people held a brief demonstration at the space center Monday, staging a mock countdown and then collapsing in mock death when a woman sprinkled powder representing plutonium.

They said that if they lost in court they would attempt to stop the liftoff by infiltrating the launch area in a non-violent occupation.

"We're going to attempt to put people on the launch pad if the court doesn't prevent the launch," said Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Florida Coalition for Peace and Justice, one of the three groups that filed suit.

Reaching the heavily guarded launch pad would be tough.

More than 200 security guards armed with M-16 assault rifles and semiautomatic 9mm pistols will patrol the 140,000-acre space center to stop any infiltrators, and the center also will be guarded by helicopters and boats.