Live in Orbit: Station monitoring space junk

NASA posted the following update on its Web site, indicating that Thursday's spacewalk is likely to proceed on schedule: "As experts continue to analyze a possible conjunction with debris from a portion of an Ariane 5 rocket body, NASA space shuttle CAPCOM Tony Antonelli informed Discovery and International Space Station crew members that the options have been narrowed to two: either not performing a Debris Avoidance Maneuver at all; or performing a reboost avoidance maneuver after Thursday’s second spacewalk. There no longer is any consideration being given to deboosting the shuttle and station, which would have delayed the second spacewalk by a day."

NASA is monitoring a piece of space junk that could fly close to the International Space Station on Friday morning and possibly require the outpost to steer out of the way.

Such a move is considered unlikely, said Rob Navias, a NASA TV commentator.

But if necessary, it's possible the maneuver would delay Thursday's spacewalk to Friday and extend shuttle Discovery's planned 13-day mission by a day.

The debris is a small piece of a spent Ariane 5 rocket stage, but it is not known when the rocket launched or the exact size of the debris. Officials have been monitoring it for several hours.

The closest approach is expected to occur at 11:06 a.m. EDT Friday.

But the debris could fly by more six miles from the station.

"That's a fairly healthy piece of real estate for a miss distance, and we are hopeful that no maneuver is going to be required to steer clear of this piece of space junk," said Navias.

As a precaution, however, several options are being developed to move the station up or down out of the junk's path, if necessary.

Avoidance maneuvers could be accomplished before or after the second of three mission spacewalks, which wsa scheduled to start at 5:19 p.m. Thursday.

A downward move, or "de-boost," would take more than five hours and result in the spacewalk's delay, Navias said.

Moving in either direction would require use of the shuttle's primary jets, since the six smaller steering thrusters were disabled after last Friday's launch because of a fuel leak.

Since then, managers have been monitoring fuel supplies because Russian thrusters on the station don't have enough to handle the maneuvers alone.

They are still reviewing a new digital autopilot procedure that would allow the more powerful jets to be used safely, but an inadvertent jet firing could pose risks to the station's structural integrity.

"I would emphasize that it is only a remote possibility that we would have to exercise a debris avoidance maneuver to steer clear of this piece of spent Ariane rocket body," Navias said.

A decision could be made as soon as tonight or by the crew's Thursday wake-up time of 12:30 p.m. EDT.

The junk was spotted hours after Discovery mission specialist Danny Olivas marveled at the number of apparent micrometeoroid hits the station had sustained in areas he inspected at the end of the mission's first spacewalk.

Debris in the station's vicinity affected the last shuttle mission.

Shortly after Endeavour docked in mid-July, the joined spacecraft moved to avoid orbiting space junk.

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