NASA said on Monday it is determining what to do about space junk near the International Space Station as shuttle Discovery nears the orbiting outpost.
A drifting piece of a Russian satellite is expected to come within just half of a mile of the space station on Tuesday, NASA said.
The news comes less than one week after astronauts aboard the space station were forced to board an emergency capsule for about 10 minutes when another piece of debris passed close by.
Seven astronauts aboard Discovery left the Kennedy Space Center launch pad on Sunday in their journey to the space station.
Launch director Mike Leinbach described Discovery’s launch as “the most visually beautiful launch I’ve ever seen. It was just spectacular.”
NASA officials radioed Mike Fincke and his crew aboard Discovery to notify them about the space junk.
“You know where to find us,” Fincke replied.
NASA said it plans to decide whether or not they should fire the shuttle’s engines to clear the path of the debris.
Discovery’s launch was held back by five delays, which resulted in the elimination of a planned spacewalk. In February, NASA had problems with Discovery’s hydrogen valves, and then a hydrogen leak during fueling prevented launch Wednesday.
NASA mission managers told the AP they would still be able to complete 80 to 90 percent of the tasks they had planned.
“It’s not a major setback to us,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for space operations, after Sunday evening’s launch. “We’re able to accomplish everything we want.”
NASA said Discovery needs to have returned to Earth before a Russian Soyuz rocket launches on March 26 carrying a new set of crew members to the orbiting outpost.
NASA had until Tuesday to get Discovery flying or else the launch would have been bumped to April, according to the AP.
During the 13-day mission, astronauts will be installing the final pair of solar wings to the space station. They will also be bringing supplies and hardware including a replacement machine that converts urine into drinking water and a flusher and iodine solution to get rid of bacteria that is lurking in the water dispenser.
Discovery’s crew will spend part of Monday examining the shuttle’s thermal protection system with cameras and sensors attached to a boom on the shuttle’s robotic arm.
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