SPACE MISSION

MARCH 12 2009 19:46h

Debris Briefly Force Astronauts From Space Station

ISS Commander Fincke and Flight Engineer Lonchakov work outside the Russian segment of the station during their spacewalk from the orbiting laboratory

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The debris was a `very tiny piece` - about 1/3 of an inch inch (1 cm) long - of an old ˙payload assist motor`.

The three astronauts aboard the International Space Station briefly evacuated to a Russian escape ship on Thursday when a tiny piece of space debris came too close for comfort, NASA said.

The astronauts, Russian Yury Lonchakov and Americans Michael Fincke and Sandra Magnus, were in the Soyuz spacecraft for about nine minutes before the debris passed and the space station was deemed safe to re-enter.

The debris was a "very tiny piece" -- about 1/3 of an inch inch (1 cm) long -- of an old "payload assist motor" that was previously on either a Delta rocket or the space shuttle, NASA spokeswoman Laura Rochon said.

"The crew is safe and back in the space station and they are resuming normal operations," Rochon said. "They were in the capsule about nine minutes."

Space junk is considered a threat to the 800 or so commercial and military satellites estimated to be operating in space as well as to the International Space Station, which has been continuously manned since November 2000. There are more than 18,000 pieces of space debris cataloged .

Russia's mission control said the debris had passed by the station.

"They didn't even close the hatch between the station and the Soyuz," a spokesman said.

The incident occurred only a day after NASA postponed until Sunday the scheduled launch on Wednesday of the space shuttle Discovery on a mission to the space station. The U.S. space agency blamed a hydrogen leak during fueling for the postponement.

The purpose of the shuttle flight -- the first of five planned for this year -- is to deliver a final set of solar power panels to the space station and transport Japan's first astronaut to serve as a member of the live-aboard station crew.

Sunday's liftoff was scheduled for 7:43 p.m. EDT (2343 GMT) from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.