NASA’s space shuttles are known for being shipshape — efficiency and neatness are the bywords, and everything is kept neatly stowed. So when astronauts headed home on the Discovery noticed a stray object outside the shuttle floating away into space this morning, they took note. When they next noted a strange new “little bump” on the side of the vessel’s rudder, their earthbound colleagues got a bit nervous.
As the shuttle continues on its course back towards Earth after a successful mission to the International Space Station, both astronauts and NASA’s ground staff have been scrambling to figure out what it all means, and whether these developments could pose any threat to the shuttle on its reentry to the Earth’s atmosphere. After a morning of exhaustive analysis, NASA says it’s got a preliminary answer to these pressing questions: Discovery probably lost a part, but it probably doesn’t matter.
The astronauts reported that the floating object was shiny, rectangular, and about one foot long. Since early this morning NASA has been busily analyzing photos and videos in an attempt to identify the shiny thing. Commander Kelly also offered to take a break from preparations for landing to “take the arm out,” meaning the shuttle’s robotic arm, which is equipped with a camera, to “get a closer look” at the area in question [The New York Times].
So far, NASA hasn’t called for that step. Mission Control told Discovery commander Mark Kelly the floating object appears to be one of three metal clips from the tail rudder and part of the rudder’s speed brake assembly. “We’re still analyzing; we can’t say definitely,” Mission Control told the shuttle astronauts [Houston Chronicle]. Since the metal clip plays no crucial role in landing, NASA said its absence was not a cause for concern.
As for the bump on the rudder, engineers still aren’t sure exactly what it was that astronauts saw, but said that whatever it was, it also wasn’t a problem. NASA staffers first thought it might be a small piece of thermal insulation sticking out from the area around the rudder speed brake, which is designed to open up like a clam during landing to provide resistance and slow the shuttle down. But mission control compared the astronauts’ snapshots with photos taken before the shuttle’s launch and found no significant difference.
With these concerns largely laid to rest, astronauts can get back to preparing the shuttle for its scheduled landing on Saturday. “Overall, it’s a get ready for entry day,” NASA’s deputy shuttle program manager LeRoy Cain said Thursday, adding that the orbiter’s heat shield appeared to be in good health for landing [SPACE.com].