Orbiting Debris May Reroute NASA's Space Shuttle Discovery
Multiple launch postponements have plagued the latest space shuttle
Discovery mission, but the eight-man spacecraft finally got underway
March 15 for a
14-day assignment to the ISS (International Space Station). Now,
though, traffic reports indicated Discovery may have to reroute in
order to avoid orbiting space debris.
According to NASA, a breakaway piece of a Russian satellite is likely to come close to the ISS on March 17, just one day before the Discovery is scheduled to dock at the orbiting platform. If the debris comes close enough to the ISS, NASA engineers will slightly move the ISS and force Discovery to recalculate its own path to the ISS.
Last week, a piece of a Russian spacecraft motor came close enough to the ISS that the three-man crew was forced to evacuate to the Soyuz TMA-13 capsule, which is attached to the space station to transport astronauts back in an emergency.
Orbital debris is nothing new in space. Wired, which has compiled open government data about space missions, reports that on the 54 shuttle missions so far documented, orbiting debris and meteoroids have hit the space shuttle's windows 1,634 times and the craft's radiator has been smacked 317 times. The impacts have resulted in 92 window replacements.
The eight-man Discovery crew is scheduled to deliver the ISS's fourth and final set of solar array wings, completing the station's truss, or backbone. The arrays will provide the electricity to fully power science experiments and support the ISS crew of six. Four spacewalks are scheduled for the mission as the ISS crew installs the solar array wings. The mission also includes replacing a failed unit for a system that converts urine to potable water.
The Discovery mission has already been delayed by a month after safety concerns were raised about the craft's fuel pressure valves. The mission is the first of five shuttle missions scheduled for this year.
Commander Lee Archambault will lead Discovery's crew of seven, along with pilot Tony Antonelli, and mission specialists Joseph Acaba, John Phillips, Steve Swanson, Richard Arnold and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Koichi Wakata.
The delayed shuttle launch follows mixed results for NASA launches this year. NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory launch failed Feb. 24 to separate from its launch rocket or reach orbit, and tumbled into the Pacific Ocean near Antarctica. NASA's first spacecraft dedicated to studying atmospheric carbon dioxide, the OCO aimed to scan Earth's surface for elusive carbon dioxide "sinks" in Earth's atmosphere.
More successfully, NASA launched March 6 the unmanned Kepler project, a three-year or longer mission in search of Earth-sized planets moving around stars similar to the sun. The Kepler spacecraft will watch a patch of space containing about 100,000 such stars. Unlike other space observatories such as the Hubble Space Telescope, Kepler's space position will allow it to watch the same stars constantly throughout its mission.
Provisioned with special detectors similar to those used in digital cameras, Kepler will look for slight dimming in the stars as planets pass between the stars and Kepler.