NASA: Space station may have to dodge more debris

As shuttle Discovery nears space station, so does piece of a Russian satellite

NASA engineers are trying to figure out if they need to maneuver the International Space Station out of the way of another piece of space debris that is hurtling precariously close to the orbiter.

The threat to the space station and its crew of two American astronauts and one Russian cosmonaut comes just over a day before the space shuttle Discovery is scheduled to dock at the orbiter.

NASA noted that the threat to the space station, a runaway piece of a Russian satellite, is the second in less than a week. Last Thursday, the three astronauts were forced to seek shelter in the Soyuz TMA-13 capsule that is attached to the space station, when a piece of an old rocket motor flew past close by. The attached capsule serves as a "lifeboat" for the crew and could transport them back to earth in an emergency.

NASA said that the piece of the rocket motor measured a third of an inch in diameter and came within a 2.8 mile "box" of space that NASA considers a danger zone around the space station. Josh Byerly, a NASA spokesman, told Computerworld last week that even something the size of a grain of sand could do massive damage to the space station because of the high rate of speed at which debris travels in space.

Bill Jeffs, a spokesman for NASA, said this morning that the agency had discovered last week's piece of debris too late to maneuver the space station away from its path. This time, however, there is time to maneuver the orbiter if calculations made by NASA scientists determine that moving the space station is necessary. If the space station is moved away from the debris, astronauts aboard the space shuttle will need to adjust their trajectory to make the docking tomorrow.

Jeffs added that the latest incident is not expected to delay tomorrow's docking, which is slated for 5:13 p.m. Eastern.

The space debris is expected to pass within a quarter-mile of the space station at 3:14 a.m. Eastern Tuesday. Jeffs said there is no correlation between the piece of debris from last week and the one threatening the space station this week. He also said dodging space debris is not generally a common occurrence for space station astronauts.

The Discovery lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center Sunday evening. The crew is scheduled to install the final set of power-generating solar arrays to the International Space Station.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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