Space Station Dodges Debris from Old NASA Satellite

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The International Space Station was nudged with the help of a docked spaceship today (Oct. 26) to avoid a piece of space junk from a defunct NASA satellite that came uncomfortably close to the orbiting laboratory.

About three hours after the debris avoidance maneuver, the fragment from what had been the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite passed 1.24 miles (2 km) from the space station, at 9:41 a.m. EDT (1341 GMT).

At 6:25 a.m. (1025 GMT), space station flight controllers ordered a Russian cargo ship docked to the station, the Progress 39, to fire its thrusters for three minutes, to steer the station clear of the satellite fragment. [ Worst Space Debris Moments in History ]

The maneuver came at a busy time for NASA and the space station, but agency officials said today's burn was not expected to significantly affect the upcoming launch and docking schedule of NASA's space shuttle and Russian Soyuz rockets at the space station.

NASA spokesman Rob Navias said in a statement that the maneuver was not expected to affect the launch of space shuttle Discovery next week, or its arrival at the space station. Discovery is scheduled to launch Nov. 1 and dock two days later to deliver a new storage room, humanoid robot and supplies.

By coincidence, Discovery had carried the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite into space Sept. 12, 1991.

Although the satellite was designed to last about three years, the longevity of several instruments onboard resulted in a 14-year mission of scientific research. The satellite was decommissioned in December 2005.

Russian flights of Soyuz spacecraft ferrying crews to and from the space station were similarly unaffected by the maneuver, Navias said.

Russia's Federal Space Agency also plans to launch an unmanned Progress 40 cargo ship toward the station this week. It is due to arrive Saturday (Oct. 30).

NASA typically moves the $100 billion space station if there is a 1-in-10,000 chance of an object striking it. Mission Control works to keep a safety perimeter that extends 15 miles (25 km) around the space station, as well as about a half-mile (0.75 km) above and below it.

At last estimate, more than 19,000 pieces of space trash were in orbit, according to the Space Surveillance Network. These include items like spent rocket stages and broken satellites.Discovery is set to launch Nov. 1 from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on its final spaceflight to the space station. The 11-day STS-133 mission will be taking critical spare parts to the ISS, including a window-less storage room and a humanoid robot helper called Robonaut 2.