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11 July 2011

Space Junk Could Buzz Atlantis and Space Station

Image: Atlantis docked with the ISS on Sunday. Credit: NASA TV

If the crew of the final shuttle mission to the International Space Station (ISS) thought the Cosmos would give them a break just because they are making history, they'd be wrong.

NASA is currently tracking a chunk of defunct Russian satellite that is speeding around the planet and could make a close pass around the time of a scheduled spacewalk on Tuesday, Space.com reports. Mission managers are assessing the threat, and should the need arise, they could opt to use the docked shuttle's thrusters to nudge the entire space station out of harm's way.

Projections suggest that the space junk, originating from a dead Russian satellite that was launched in the 1970's, will make closest approach to the station at 12:59 p.m. ET on July 12. Space station astronauts Ron Garan and Mike Fossum are expected to be working on the space station's exterior at that time.

Only last month, another space junk encounter caused an alert, prompting the ISS crew to take shelter in the attached Soyuz space capsules, just in case the worst should happen. The junk came within 250 meters of the station.

This time, however, mission managers have plenty of time to refine their calculations and decide whether a space junk avoidance maneuver is required.

"In all likelihood, it would not interfere with what we're doing on the spacewalk," said LeRoy Cain, chair of Atlantis' mission management team, on Sunday.

Space junk is of growing concern for the future of spaceflight. There's a growing number of dead satellites, rocket parts and other Space Age refuse that pose orbital dangers as they whiz around low-Earth orbit and beyond. Over 22,000 pieces of space debris are constantly being tracked.

"It's not uncommon," Cain continued. "There's a lot of junk in orbit. We have a very good process for knowing where they are and how to avoid them in cases where we need to avoid them. It's not unusual to have to deal with it."

Fingers crossed that this particular chunk of dead satellite doesn't stray too close to the space station, but even if it is predicted to do so, Atlantis will be there to help out.

- Discovery News