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NASA: Space junk could threaten astronauts

Debris could come too close or even hit the linked space shuttle Discovery and international space station if their path is not altered.

Space Shuttle Discovery Commander Rick Sturckow is seen through the window of the orbiter in this view taken by one of the space-walking astronauts.

REUTERS/NASA

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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 an upcoming spacewalk.

Mission Control kept 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.

As of Wednesday night, the debris was expected to pass within two miles (three kilometers) of the outpost Friday, said John McCullough, chief of NASA’s flight director office.

That’s five miles (eight 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 3-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 out as 20,000 miles (32,000 kilometers) — made it especially difficult to monitor.

Experts estimate that the piece of junk — part of a booster that was used to deploy a satellite — has about 200 square feet (18.5 square meters) of surface area. Its exact dimensions are unknown.

The late-breaking news did not affect the work of the two crews aboard the complex. They got ready for Thursday evening’s spacewalk, moved more cargo into the space station and even installed some of the new big-ticket items, including a sleeping compartment.

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