Just hours after the U.S. space shuttle Atlantis docked at the International Space Station (ISS), NASA started tracking space debris from the wreckage of a Soviet satellite which could be on a possible collision course with the orbiting space station, according to multiple tabloid reports, citing the U.S. space agency as saying.
The space junk is a fragment from the wreckage of Cosmos 375, a military satellite launched in October 1970 by the former Soviet Union, It collided with another satellite and broke up into many pieces.
Orbiting junk could pass ISS on Tuesday
Though details about the size and exact trajectory of the orbital debris are unknown, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said, it could be on a disastrous path toward the ISS, where the shuttle Atlantis has just docked on its final 12-day mission.
On Sunday (July 10), the shuttle Atlantis, on the last mission of its nearly 30 years service, safely docked at the ISS.
Could collide right in middle of scheduled spacewalk
The U.S. space agency has been notified that space debris could collide with the space station/space shuttle at around 12 noon (1600 GMT) on Tuesday, when the one spacewalk of this mission is scheduled.
On Tuesday, two US astronauts aboard the ISS are scheduled to step out on a spacewalk as part of Expedition 28.
Though the debris are expected to collide with the space station Tuesday, deputy manager of the space shuttle program LeRoy Cain noted that the danger is only potential, and it is still early to raise an alarm.
"What we were told today is very preliminary. It is a potential right now," Cain said, adding that they have teams working around the clock to determine whether there's a real threat to the spacecraft.
Mass number of debris orbiting above earth
Flight controllers are monitoring more than 500,000 pieces of space junk that are at least the size of a marble in Earth's orbit, NASA said.
These objects can travel at speeds of up to 17,500 miles per hour and can cause serious damage to the crafts
"It is not uncommon. There is a lot of junk in orbit, there are a lot of objects being tracked," Cain said. "Fortunately we have a good process for dealing with it, we have a number of spent rocket bodies, and over time these things drag down from their original orbits."
If necessary, space shuttle Atlantis would use its thrusters to move the space station out of harm's way.
"The team expected updated tracking information following today’s docking to help determine if a maneuver using the shuttle's thrusters is necessary to avoid the debris," NASA said in a statement.
Space debris threatened ISS just days ago
The debris news came less than two weeks after a piece of space debris narrowly missed the ISS.
On June 28, the six-member crew had to take temporary shelter in their Soyuz spacecraft docked at the station because of the high-speed object that likely missed ISS by just 1,100 feet (335 meters), the closest encounter yet.
"It was probably the closest object that has actually come by the space station," NASA's associate administrator for space operations, Bill Gerstenmaier, said after the incident.
"We didn't have any information that it was coming until it was very, very close."
The Atlantis is docked with the ISS to deliver 8,000 pounds of supplies, conduct some experiments and bring down to Earth a ammonia pump that recently failed on the station.
Marking the end of NASA's 30-year-old shuttle program, Atlantis is scheduled to return to Earth on July 20, the 42nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission’s moon landing.