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Astronauts toss out space station junk

A spacewalking astronaut tossed two large chunks of junk off the international space station Monday, hurling the old equipment into orbit.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A spacewalking astronaut tossed two large chunks of junk off the international space station Monday, hurling the old equipment into orbit.

Clayton Anderson, a sportsman who enjoys officiating basketball games back on Earth, heaved a 1,400-pound (636-kilogram), refrigerator-size ammonia tank away from the station. His first toss was a 200-pound (91-kilogram) camera mounting.

Mission Control declared the tank throw great and “right down the middle.”

“Well, in that case, give Brad Lidge and Roy Oswalt a call and tell them I just hummed a 17,500-mph fastball,” Anderson said, referring to the star pitchers for his hometown Houston Astros.

Anderson said the tank looked “majestic” as it tumbled away, and the 4-foot (1.2-meter) camera mounting resembled “a huge star.”

“I’ll be sending my bill in the mail for trash disposal,” he joked with Mission Control.

For each celestial toss, Anderson leaned back on the end of the space station’s 58-foot (18-meter) robot arm, as far from the space station as possible. He rocked forward and shouted “Jettison!” as he shoved the outdated camera mounting into space. The bulkier ammonia tank was a bit trickier.

The ammonia tank had been launched in 2001 to provide spare coolant in case of a leak at the orbiting complex. The surplus ammonia was never needed, and the tank itself had exceeded its life expectancy.

NASA normally tries to avoid adding to the orbiting junkyard, but officials felt they had no choice in this case. The equipment had to be removed, and because of a looming 2010 deadline for ending all shuttle flights, NASA does not have room on its remaining missions to return the tank to Earth.

Flight controllers expect the ammonia tank to orbit for 10 or 11 months before re-entering the atmosphere and burning up.

There should be no danger of a collision between the free-floating tank and station before that happens, officials said. Small chunks are likely to survive next year’s fall through the atmosphere; NASA officials hope those pieces will hit the ocean. The camera mounting should burn up entirely, much sooner than the tank, because of its smaller size.

Anderson threw the equipment in the opposite direction of the station’s travel more than 200 miles (320 kilometers) up. The station will be maneuvered later in the day into a higher orbit to provide additional clearance.

Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin joined Anderson outside the station. Cosmonaut Oleg Kotov stayed inside to oversee the spacewalk and operated the crane on which Anderson stood for the junk toss.

Anderson moved into the space station in June. The two cosmonauts have been on board since April.

“Our spaceship Earth is a beautiful place,” Anderson marveled during the spacewalk, his first.

Ground controllers extended the planned 6.5-hour spacewalk by about an hour to give Anderson and Yurchikhin extra time for their other chores. In addition to discarding the old gear, the spacewalkers cleaned debris off a docking port so the complex will be ready for new laboratories built by Europe and Japan. They also replaced a faulty circuit breaker in the mobile transporter that moves the station's robot arm to work locations along the length of the station.

This report was supplemented by information from Reuters and