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Space junk poses threat to Hubble mission

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NASA Orbital Debris Program Office

(Read caption) Space debris in Earth's geosynchronous region (about 22,236 miles in altitude). NASA says that the larger population of objects over the northern hemisphere is due mostly to Russian objects.

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Next month's Space Shuttle Atlantis mission to repair the Hubble telescope faces an increased risk of a collision with debris because it will take place in a higher, more littered orbit than usual, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said Monday.

The environment where the Hubble orbits, about 350 miles above the Earth's surface, has more debris than where the International Space Station orbits and where most shuttle missions are conducted, at about 210 miles above the Earth. This "space junk" includes defunct satellites and spent rocket stages, fragments from exploded satellites, rocket engine effluents, paint flakes, and other small particles – all traveling at speeds of more than 15,000 miles per hour.

According to the Associated Press, NASA estimates that 1 in every 300 shuttle missions to the space station can expect to be destroyed by a collision with a piece of orbital debris. For missions to the Hubble, the risk increases to 1 in 185. NASA's usual limit is 1 in 200; odds higher than that require a signoff from the highest levels of the space agency's management.

The Atlantis is scheduled to launch on October 10, with seven astronauts aboard. It will be the 124th shuttle flight.

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