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Shuttle Crew Alerted That Satellite May Be Too Close

Mon., Nov. 25, 1996

Concerned about a possible collision, NASA warned Columbia’s astronauts Sunday that they may have to retrieve a semiconductor-growing satellite one day early.

“We may have to call on you guys to roll with it a bit today,” Mission Control told the shuttle crew.

As of Sunday afternoon, the 2-ton satellite trailed Columbia and its five astronauts by 28 miles. And 28 miles farther back was the ultraviolet telescope. Both were released by the crew last week.

But the telescope was traveling faster than expected as it sped through the thin upper atmosphere, slightly lower than expected. Flight controllers fretted over how close the 3.5-ton telescope might be to Columbia if the astronauts wait until early Tuesday to retrieve the semiconductor saucer as planned.

NASA safety rules stipulate that a shuttle be at least 12 to 20 miles from another orbiting object. A collision between two spacecraft could be disastrous.

The telescope has no propulsion system and therefore cannot be commanded to slow down. The semiconductor satellite, called the Wake Shield, has only a tiny thruster that’s useless for major maneuvers.

Flight directors planned to wait until as late as possible before deciding whether to retrieve the Wake Shield early today.

University of Houston researchers growing the thin, pure semiconductor film on the Wake Shield stoically accepted news of a possibly premature end to their mission.

They’re “not one bit” upset, team spokesman Paul Guse said. “If anything, they’re glowing over the performance so far.”


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