Space junk passes within 1 1/2 miles

Jeffrey Allan Baker (
Tue, 12 Aug 1997 22:42:56 -0400

8/12/97 -- 6:49 PM

Space junk passes within 1 1/2 miles of ozone-mapping satellite ^By MARCIA
DUNN ^AP Aerospace Writer CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) - An ozone-measuring
satellite trailing space shuttle Discovery came frighteningly close to a
500-pound piece of space junk that could have smashed it to pieces. The
discarded rocket motor passed within 1 1/2 miles of the German-built
satellite, worth tens of millions of dollars. Discovery and its crew of six
were 51 miles ahead of the satellite at the time Monday night and were in
no danger, German mission manager Konrad Moritz said. If the rocket motor
and the 7,700-pound satellite had collided - both are hurtling around Earth
at 17,500 mph - it could have been disastrous. The U.S. Space Command,
which tracks junk in orbit, knew the object was out there and kept NASA
informed. However, as the piece drew near, engineers variously predicted it
would pass as close as a half-mile or 3 1/2 miles. Because of that wide
margin of uncertainty, scientists nervously watched computer screens when
the moment of closest approach came. ``We saw that we are still
transmitting, so our spacecraft is fine,'' Moritz said. ``This was a moment
of excitement.'' Ground controllers were prepared to fire tiny thrusters on
the satellite to slowly maneuver it out of harm's way. There is no danger
of the motor coming close to the 184-mile-high satellite again, said NASA
spokesman Kyle Herring. The astronauts plan to retrieve the satellite on
Saturday, two days before their mission ends. The spent rocket motor was
used in the unsuccessful launch of a communications satellite that was
carried up on a space shuttle in 1984. Coincidentally, the platform on
which the satellite's ozone-mapping telescopes are flying was on that
mission, too. ``Now we are meeting this guy again,'' Moritz said. ``Isn't
that the story?'' The rocket motor is among more than 8,500 orbiting
objects being tracked by the U.S. Space Command, most of them junk.
Discovery's crew spent Tuesday taking more pictures of the Hale-Bopp comet
with an ultraviolet telescope mounted on a shuttle window, and conducted
more tests with a laboratory platform designed to withstand vibrations from
the spacecraft. ^AP-ES-08-12-97 1845EDT