Unidentified object contributes to delay of shuttle landing

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

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Space Shuttle Orbiter Atlantis is one of the fleet of space shuttles belonging to the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). It was the fourth operational shuttle built. Following the destruction of Columbia, it is one of the three fully operational shuttles remaining in the fleet. The other two are Discovery and Endeavour. After it completes STS-125, the final Hubble Space Telescope service mission, Atlantis is scheduled to be the first shuttle retired from the fleet.

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Flight controllers in Houston, Texas, U.S.A observed an unidentified object at approximately 7:45 UTC today moving at an undetermined distance from the Space Shuttle Atlantis as it orbited the Earth at an altitude of over 190 nautical miles. As of 16:00 UTC, there was still uncertainty as to the object's size and distance from the orbiter. Video of the object showed it following an undeviating path between the shuttle and the Earth below.

NASA released the following statement on its official website: "An object was observed by flight controllers using a TV camera on the shuttle in close proximity to the spacecraft. It was observed following standard tests of Atlantis' reaction control system about 2:45 a.m. today. Flight controllers continue to analyze the situation and are concerned the item may be something that came off of Atlantis."

The shuttle had been scheduled to land at 15:45 UTC on Wednesday, but concerns raised by the object, in addition to an unfavorable weather forecast, prompted Mission Control Center to "wave off" the landing until 11:32 UTC Thursday at the earliest.

ABC News is reporting that flight controllers first saw the object shortly after sensors in the shuttle's wings indicated the craft had been "hit by something", but the Associated Press reports that NASA officials believe the sensor reading was triggered by the spacecraft itself as it fired positional jets. As of 18:00 UTC the leading theory at NASA is that something escaped from the shuttle's cargo bay during that jet firing sequence. Cameras will be focused on the object throughout the night and a detailed inventory of cargo bay items will be taken in an effort to learn whether a safe landing can be made without the object, if it in fact belonged to the shuttle.