CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – NASA postponed the return of Atlantis for at least a day and examined the shuttle for damage after a mysterious object apparently fell off the ship in orbit Tuesday.
Space agency officials wanted extra time to establish whether the object was a vital piece of the shuttle – such as the tiles that protect it from the blowtorch heat of re-entry – and whether it harmed the spacecraft when it fell away.
Officials were not optimistic they would be able to identify the object, since the possibilities were almost endless, ranging from harmless ice to crucial thermal protection tiles. But the leading candidate was a plastic space-filler placed between the thermal tiles.
“The question is: What is it? Is it something benign? … Or is it something more critical we should pay attention to?” said Wayne Hale, space shuttle program manager. “We want to make sure we’re safe to land before we commit to that rather incredible journey through the Earth’s atmosphere.”
Atlantis had been scheduled to touch down just before daybreak today, when the weather forecast wasn’t favorable for landing anyway. The landing time was reset for early Thursday.
Mission Control spotted the baffling object – the size of which was not immediately determined – with a video camera in the shuttle’s cargo bay. The object may have come out of the cargo bay early Tuesday, but officials were not certain.
The object floated near the shuttle in the same orbit for a while, slipping farther and farther away until it was just a dark speck in NASA video beamed down to Earth.
A few minutes after NASA made the midday decision to delay the landing, Atlantis astronaut Dan Burbank photographed what appeared to be another small object floating away from the spacecraft. Later in the day, Hale said the object likely was a plastic trash bag that drifted out of the cargo bay.
NASA engineers said they think the first object may have shaken loose from the shuttle during the firing of jets in preparation for landing, a procedure that sends a powerful shudder through the craft.
The space agency is using a half-dozen cameras in the shuttle’s cargo bay and on its robotic arm to look for damage, especially to the spacecraft’s thermal skin or any mechanical systems. NASA managers planned to order Atlantis’ robotic arm, and possibly a 50-foot boom with sensors and cameras at its end, to be taken out again today for another inspection.