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September 4, 2009

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Space junkthreat for shuttle astronauts

A MASSIVE piece of space junk was drifting toward the shuttle-station complex and its 13 astronauts, though NASA officials said the threat would not delay a spacewalk scheduled for last night.
Mission Control is keeping close tabs on the piece of European rocket because there was a chance, however unlikely, it could come too close or even hit the linked space shuttle Discovery and international space station if their path is not altered.
The debris was expected to pass within 3 kilometers of the outpost today, said John McCullough, chief of NASA's flight director office.
That's 8 kilometers closer than earlier projections, but it's still "looking very positive" that the shuttle and station will not have to dodge the junk. That's because with every passing hour, there's more accuracy on the precise location of the spacecraft and debris, McCullough said.
Experts will continue to track the debris - part of a three-year-old Ariane 5 rocket - to make sure it stays at a safe distance. Pieces of uncontrolled space junk sometimes stray from their orbit, however, and that is the concern. The object's oval-shaped orbit - stretching as far as 32,000 kilometers - made it especially difficult to monitor.
If Mission Control determines the shuttle-station complex needs to dodge the orbiting debris, a move into a higher orbit would take place early today.


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