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CREWS FIXING HELIUM LEAK IN ATLAS ROCKET

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Crews worked Saturday to repair a helium leak that forced the postponement of the launch of an Atlas rocket, but a spokesman said the problem should easily be fixed in time for a Sunday blastoff.

The rocket holds a government satellite designed to study Earth's invisible magnetic field.The earliest another launch could be attempted from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station is at 3:28 p.m. Sunday.

"Our guys are confident we can make an attempt Sunday," said Jack Isabel, spokesman for rocket builder General Dynamics. "We understand the problem. We'll be ready to launch Sunday."

An early assessment shows a liquid helium vent duct used for engine chilldown separated in the interstage adapter, the area between the rocket booster and its upper stage, Isabel said. The vent easily can be replaced if necessary, he said.

The leak was not related to helium line damage in June that produced two small holes in the interstage adapter, Isabel said. Helium is needed to chill the rocket's main engines and pressurize the main propulsion system.

The leak was detected less than an hour before liftoff Friday afternoon, as the commercial Atlas 1 rocket was being fueled. The escaping liquid helium was overchilling another chemical, hydrazine, which is used for steering the rocket's upper stage.

The launch already was an hour late because of an unrelated problem with a compressor that furnishes gaseous nitrogen to the rocket to cool the Combined Release and Radiation Effects Satellite.

The $189 million satellite, a joint program of NASA and the Defense Department, was to have been deployed in 1987 from space shuttle Challenger. The mission was put on hold after Challenger exploded in 1986.

To ensure a quicker launch, NASA and the Air Force had it redesigned to fit into the $65 million Atlas.

The 2-ton satellite contains 24 chemical-filled canisters that will be ejected over the next year, starting in September. The released chemicals will be ionized by the sun's ultraviolet rays and create large, glowing clouds.

The clouds will spread along Earth's magnetic field lines, making them visible to the naked eye.