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Problems mount for space station

NASA has delayed tests of the International Space Station's urine recycler after problems developed with the device and revamped plans for a spacewalk to deal with an improperly installed cargo platform attachment.

Flight directors also repositioned the station and the visiting space shuttle Discovery to avoid a piece of space junk which was expected to come too close during yesterday's spacewalk, the last of three during Discovery's mission.

The primary goal of Discovery's flight was to deliver and install the station's last set of solar panel wings, which was accomplished on Thursday. The shuttle blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center on March 15 for a 13-day mission.

With the shuttle fleet due to be retired next year, NASA is counting on the Discovery astronauts to also complete several maintenance tasks that will ease the burden on future crews.

The station, a project of 16 nations, has been under construction for more than 10 years.

During the mission's second spacewalk, astronauts Steven Swanson and Joseph Acaba loosened connections on batteries that will be replaced during the next shuttle mission in June and installed a GPS navigation antenna needed to guide Japan's new unmanned cargo ship into its docking port.

But the spacewalkers ran into problems installing a mount for a cargo platform. A locking pin was installed upside-down and may be blocking the mechanism from rotating into its proper position.

By applying more force, astronauts should be able to free the mechanism, said lead space station flight director Kwatsi Alibaruho.

In addition to fixing the cargo carrier attachment, astronauts Acaba and Richard Arnold are expected to reposition one of the station's rail carts and rewire a circuit breaker so a failure of one of the station's gyroscopes does not take two devices out of operation. They are also scheduled to lubricate part of the station's robot arm.

On Sunday, NASA repositioned the shuttle-station complex so it would encounter more friction from atmospheric particles and slow down just enough to change its orbit so a piece of debris from a Chinese satellite launch in 1999 would pass harmlessly by during yesterday's spacewalk.

Orbital debris is a growing concern in space. At speeds exceeding 17,500 miles per hour, shards as small as a fleck of paint have enough energy to damage or destroy spacecraft.

Meanwhile, engineers are trying to figure out why a water purification system that recycles urine and condensate into drinking water was not working properly.

The Discovery crew delivered a new distiller for the device. It was successfully tested on Saturday but then developed problems.


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