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Space Junk; Able to Travel Faster Than A Speeding bullet


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Imagine those two bolts that the Astronauts lost during this last space mission? Traveling at 17,000 miles per hour.


Or one of those bolts hitting a satellite? And there is more out there than even I want to imagine.







Space junk

100,000 pieces of trash are orbiting the Earth, and they could pose dangers





There are thousands of parts aboard orbiting space shuttles, plus six astronauts, their gear, food, luggage and equipment. Then there're the supplies the shuttle hauls up to the International Space Station, a now-gargantuan construction zone orbiting with its own crew, their gear, equipment and garbage.


"You try to keep track of everything," said former astronaut Kathryn Thornton, now an associate dean at the University of Virginia's engineering school. During a spacewalk, "you practice a tether protocol all the time. Everything is tethered all the time, in general. Of course, mistakes happen."


That's what happened this past week when spacewalkers lost two bolts while hooking up a $372 million addition to the space station.


During one of the spacewalks, Steve MacLean of the Canadian Space Agency told mission control that one of four bolts he needed disappeared.


"I did not see it go," MacLean said.


Though NASA said not to worry, that the bolts probably floated far enough away from the station, space debris can be dangerous. It can puncture or damage walls and other structures, even spacesuits, and can jam mechanisms.


"It's one of these problems that is growing in seriousness," said William Ailor, director of the Center for Orbital and Re-entry Debris Studies at the Aerospace Corp. in Los Angeles. "It's really the small things that will get you."


The errant bolts weren't the first hardware lost to space this year. In July, when a catch on Piers Sellers' tether caught open, he lost one of five spatulas while testing repairs to fix small cracks in Discovery's wing leading edges and nose cap.


"Guys, I think my spatula's escaped," said Sellers during his spacewalk.


The 14-inch-long spatula was later caught on video as it floated out of Discovery's open bay and into space, where it did not pose a hazard to the shuttle or the station, NASA officials said.


Not losing equipment is "a matter of pride, and evidence of a good design," said former spacewalker Thomas Jones, the Virginia author of "Sky Walking: An Astronaut's Memoir."


"I did have a washer come loose, but nabbed it before it floated away," he said. "Also a tether hook once stuck open on us, letting a tool caddy float away, but my partner Bob Curbeam reached over and grabbed it before it drifted out of his reach."


NASA's first spacewalker, Ed White, lost a spare glove in his 1965 mission, one of the earliest of some 100,000 pieces of space trash now orbiting Earth.


About 11,000 pieces are about 4 inches or larger, but most are very tiny pieces of debris. An experiment led by the NASA Langley Research Center is evaluating how well space-bound materials withstand their potentially hazardous effects. The latest part of the project was retrieved Friday during a spacewalk for a return trip to Hampton.


Objects bigger than about 4 inches are tracked by radar and telescope sensors by the U.S. Space Surveillance Network. Once or twice a year, the network orders a space shuttle to steer away to avoid a collision.


Even inside the shuttle, items can disappear. Shuttle astronauts wear shorts and pants covered with pockets and Velcro to help keep items from floating away. Still, items can work themselves free.


"People are forever losing their spoons," Thornton said.


Sometimes items find themselves carried on air currents and are later found on filtering screens of the shuttle's air circulation system. These spots are called the "Lost and Found."


"There's another place near the top of the toilet, because of the air flow," Thornton said. "So that if you lost a piece of paper or something, you might find that it's drifted up in there. . . . That's usually the first place to look."


Most items are stored during missions, tracked by computer with bar codes. Equipment is protected from floating items.


Sometimes, crews find items left behind by former occupants.


In 1989, during Thornton's first mission, astronaut "Sonny" Carter lost his watch, which he had stowed in a bag alongside his seat on the shuttle, she said.


"We never found it. Two flights later, it appeared, in orbit, in the airlock. So it was lodged in somewhere that never got seen until a couple of flights later it popped out."

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