Mystery object delays shuttle landing - - Tyler, Longview, Jacksonville |ETX News

9/19/2006-HOUSTON, Texas

Mystery object delays shuttle landing

 NASA delayed the planned landing of the space shuttle by at least a day Tuesday after engineers spotted an object that may have accidentally flown out of the space shuttle Atlantis' cargo bay.

Landing had been scheduled for Wednesday morning. But a poor weather forecast, and concerns that something crucial floated out of the space shuttle, prompted the delay, space shuttle communicator Terry Virts told the crew.

NASA engineers spotted the object at about 2:45 a.m EDT Tuesday with a video camera in the shuttle's cargo bay.

The object, which circled the Earth in the same orbit as the shuttle and is of undetermined size, probably came out of the shuttle's cargo bay because some jets had just been fired, shaking the orbiter, NASA spokesman Doug Peterson said.

"It's something that we didn't expect, but it's something that we're taking a real close look at," Peterson said.

Meanwhile, shuttle astronauts spent Tuesday packing, indulging in their surroundings and making sure their vehicle is ready for the ride home.

The Atlantis crew checked flight controls -- similar to those on an airplane -- and test fired small jets that are used to guide the shuttle. The commander and pilot used simulations to practice their landing skills.

They also participated in a rare conference call with two other spacecraft also currently in orbit.

"It's a little crowded in the sky this morning," said Jeff Williams, a resident of the international space station the shuttle undocked from on Sunday after delivering and installing a solar panel addition.

"We were wondering if we had to hire some more air traffic controllers for the increased traffic up here," responded Michael Lopez-Alegria from the Russian Soyuz capsule that launched from Kazakhstan on Monday. He's part of the team that will be taking over from Williams' crew.

During the 10-minute conversation, while the space station and shuttle hovered over Australia and the capsule over the Black Sea, the astronauts reminisced about their time together, the times to come and the latest drama in the cosmos.

Toxic spill

The three space station astronauts pulled an alarm and donned protective gear after an Elektron oxygen generator overheated Monday, spreading smoke and a burned-rubber smell and leaking potassium hydroxide, an irritant that is used to power batteries. NASA said the leak was not life-threatening, and the crew cleaned up the spill. (Full story)

"We're sorry you guys had to go through that but, yeah, we're kind of glad we weren't there and we want you all to know that we didn't touch the Elektron," Atlantis commander Brent Jett joked to Williams.

Twelve astronauts in space at once isn't a record, said NASA spokesman Pat Ryan. The cosmos have hosted 13 astronauts at once three times, most recently in 2001, Ryan said. Still, he added, it is very infrequent that three different spacecraft are concurrently in space.

During their mission, the Atlantis astronauts officially resumed construction of the international space station after a four-year hiatus. The 115-foot-long solar wings they added will generate power for the space station once it's rewired during the next mission, slated to launch in December.

Progress on the orbiting lab halted after the Columbia disaster in 2003, when the space shuttle disintegrated while re-entering the Earth's atmosphere, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

Since then, NASA has implemented several safety procedures, including Monday's inspection of the shuttle using a robotic arm with a TV camera and laser imagery system attached on the end. Preliminary results from the inspection look very good, Tony Antonelli from Mission Control in Houston told the astronauts.

NASA studies the images for any damage that might jeopardize the shuttle's re-entry.

Atlantis woke up Tuesday to a recording of Celine Dion's "Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi" (Don't Leave Without Me), dedicated to Canadian astronaut Steve MacLean.

"You guys are probably sad to be heading home but it'll be nice to have a cold beer and a shower," Lopez-Alegria said, laughing.

"It's been real short for us," Jett replied. "It's kind of funny, you guys are just starting a really long journey in space and our really short one is quickly coming to an end, much sooner than we'd like."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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