NASA: Shuttle Discovery forced to dodge space debris

4-in. piece of Chinese satellite was on track to pass too close to Discovery, space station

Astronauts aboard the space shuttle Discovery and the International Space Station this afternoon maneuvered the connected crafts to avoid a piece of space debris that is hurtling toward them.

The maneuver should keep the connected vehicles safely away from the space junk, which NASA officials believed was on track to cross the orbiter's path while astronauts were making their scheduled spacewalk on Monday. NASA feared that the debris could have forced it to postpone the spacewalk.

This is the third time in little more than a week that space junk has come close enough to the space station to pose a potential risk to the crew and the orbiter. The space station crew was on alert early last week before a 4-in. piece of a defunct Russian satellite ultimately flew harmlessly by on Tuesday morning. And then late the week before, the two U.S. astronauts and one Russian cosmonaut aboard the station were forced to seek shelter in the attached Soyuz TMA-13 Capsule when a piece of an old rocket motor came too close for comfort.

The space shuttle Discovery, which is on a 14-day mission, docked with the space station last Tuesday.

Today, at 4:31 p.m. Eastern time, the astronauts completed the latest maneuver, which is designed to slow the two attached crafts enough to avoid the latest approaching debris, which NASA describes as a 4-in. piece of a Chinese satellite. NASA reported that ground control had the crew maneuver the two so that Discovery is in front of the space station as they travel through space. "Discovery and the station will stay in this orientation long enough for the natural drag to slow the stack by about a foot per second, estimated to take three hours," said NASA in an online report.

NASA also noted that without doing this maneuver, the piece of space junk would have crossed the shuttle-station orbit repeatedly for several days. The first time it approached the orbiter would have been about two hours into Monday's scheduled spacewalk.

Earlier today, the NASA crew aboard the space shuttle Discovery got some downtime to prepare for their third space walk tomorrow.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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