CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - NASA yesterday delayed the launch of space shuttle Atlantis until January after a gauge in the fuel tank failed for the second time in four days.

With only a few days remaining in the launch window for the shuttle's mission to the International Space Station, senior managers decided to stand down until next month in hopes of better understanding the perplexing and persistent fuel-gauge problem.

"We're determined to get to the bottom of this," said LeRoy Cain, chairman of the mission management team.

Whether Atlantis can fly as early as Jan. 2 "is all going to depend on what we find out," he said.

The trouble with the fuel gauge resurfaced just before sunrise yesterday, about an hour after the launch team began filling Atlantis' big external tank for an afternoon lift-off.

Shuttle managers had said they would halt the countdown and call everything off if any of the four hydrogen fuel gauges acted up. Three failed during Thursday's launch attempt; no one knows why.

Launch director Doug Lyons said yesterday's failure was similar to what happened before, except only one gauge malfunctioned this time.

NASA quickly established an engineering team to come up with ideas on how to pinpoint and fix the problem, which has bedeviled NASA off and on for the past two years. The engineers will report back to Cain and other managers tomorrow.