September 10, 2009, 4:09 PM — About seven hours before their scheduled landing time, the crew of the space shuttle Discovery was forced today to dodge a piece of space debris.
NASA announced this afternoon that the shuttle performed an orbital adjustment burn at 12:02 p.m. ET, successfully moving Discovery out of the way of an unidentified piece of space junk. The move was performed about 50 minutes before the debris would have closely approached the shuttle.
NASA officials are still not sure what the debris was, but figure it was something left over from the mission s third spacewalk.
This isn t the first time that space junk has been an issue on the 12-day mission.
Last week, NASA s mission control had to deal with a large piece of space debris that was hurtling toward the International Space Station, which was docked with the space shuttle at the time. NASA decided it didn t need to dodge the debris, and the 22-square-yard piece of an Ariane 5 rocket body passed about 1.5 miles from the station late Friday morning.
Close brushes with dangerous space junk are nothing new for NASA.
In March, space junk came close enough to the space station to pose a potential risk to the crew and the orbiter three times in little more than a week. The last time the space shuttle Discovery was docked with the space station, the two crafts had to move out of the path of a four-inch piece of a Chinese satellite moving quickly toward them .
And just before that, two American astronauts and a Russian cosmonaut onboard the space station were forced to seek shelter in a "lifeboat" capsule when a piece of an old rocket motor came hurtling dangerously close to the orbiting outpost.
Today, the Discovery crew is focused on heading home after a mission to bring about eight tons of supplies and equipment up to the space station. Astronauts conducted three successful spacewalks, uninstalled a spent ammonia tank and replaced it with a new one, and even loaded a new treadmill into the space station for the astronauts to keep up their cardio health.
The shuttle is set to begin de-orbiting at 5:59 p.m. EDT today with a landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida set for 7:05 p.m. ET.