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NASA cancels space station alert over orbital debris

NASA canceled plans for a debris avoidance maneuver on the International Space Station, a 450-ton orbiting outpost.
NASA canceled plans for a debris avoidance maneuver on the International Space Station, a 450-ton orbiting outpost.NASA via NBC News
/ Source: NBC News and news services

Plans to move the International Space Station to a slightly different orbit were called off on Thursday after controllers determined that two pieces of orbital debris would not pose a collision risk, NASA said.

Mission controllers had been monitoring debris from an old Russian Cosmos satellite and a fragment from an Indian rocket, and said there was a chance that the debris could come close enough to require an adjustment in the station's orbit on Thursday.

But NASA said additional tracking of the debris "resulted in a high degree of confidence that neither object would pose any possibility of a conjunction" with the station. As a result, Mission Control in Houston canceled the debris avoidance maneuver. Russian flight controllers endorsed the decision, NASA said.

Space junk moves so fast that it can puncture the station, so engineers try to give debris a wide berth whenever something comes close. Three spacefliers — NASA's Sunita Williams, Russia's Yuri Malenchenko and Japan's Akihiko Hoshide — are currently living aboard the station.

If the maneuver had been required, the engines of a European cargo ship docked to the station, the Edoardo Amaldi Automated Transfer Vehicle, would have been fired to make the move. A communications glitch kept the unmanned ATV from leaving the station earlier this week, as scheduled.

"Russian engineers told mission managers that they fully understand the nature of the error and are prepared to proceed to a second undocking attempt," NASA said in Thursday's update. The tentative plans for the debris avoidance maneuver meant the next attempt to undock the ATV had to be delayed until Friday at the earliest.

Once the craft is undocked, a pair of engine firings will send it down through the atmosphere to burn up over the Pacific Ocean.

This report includes information from NBC News and The Associated Press.