NASA says space station safe after near-miss with space junk

Space shuttle Discovery, carrying 5,000 pounds of solar arrays, still set to dock today

Astronauts on board the International Space Station got the all-clear signal last night as a piece of space debris passed harmlessly by the orbiter.

The three-man crew on the space station had been on alert yesterday, while NASA engineers on the ground debated whether they would need to maneuver the orbiter out of the path of the debris, which was a 4-in. piece of a defunct Russian satellite. NASA didn't say this morning how close the debris came to the space station when it went hurtling past at 3:14 a.m. Eastern time, but it was far enough away that the space shuttle didn't need to alter its path.

This was the second time in less than a week that a piece of space junk has endangered the space station and its crew.

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. The attached capsule serves as a "lifeboat" for the crew and could transport them back to Earth in an emergency.

Bill Jeffs, a spokesman for NASA, said there is no correlation between the piece of debris from last week and the one that threatened the space station this week. He also said dodging space debris is not generally a common occurrence for space station astronauts. "It's an issue for us, so we have to be mindful of it," he added. "It's part of what comes with the territory."

The Space Shuttle Discovery is scheduled to dock with the space station at 5:13 p.m. Eastern time today. The shuttle, which lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center Sunday evening, is carrying the final set of power-generating solar arrays slated to be installed on the space station. The shuttle and space station crews will team up beginning tomorrow to unload the array, which is made up of 32,800 solar cells. Robotic arms on board the shuttle and the space station will both be used to unload, unfurl and attach the array.

The pair of panels, which measure 230 feet end to end and weigh in at nearly 5,000 pounds, are scheduled to be installed on Thursday.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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