Searchers are looking in a town in east Texas for a top-secret object from the space shuttle Columbia. Hundreds of National Guardsmen, federal agents, state troopers, and volunteers have invaded the tiny Texas town of Bronson, searching for the mystery object. They’ve gone block by block and hacked through the thick woods that surround the town. State troopers told photographers they will be asked to leave the area if something is found that should not be photographed. The searchers were given a picture of the object, which was marked “Secret Government Property.” The Houston Chronicle says the object is a communications device that handles encrypted messages between the shuttle and the ground. And NASA thinks Columbia may have been hit by space junk.

NASA is considering turbulence or a meteorite strike as possible causes of the Columbia breakup, but it doesn’t think the foam that hit the wing was heavy enough to damage the shuttle. However, there’s lots of other stuff out there in space. “Did we take some hit?” asks shuttle flight director Milt Heflin. “That’s a possibility. Something was breached.”

Some scientists think there are more than a million pieces of debris orbiting the Earth, including “trash” from space flights, such as spent rocket bodies, spent rocket bodies, satellite fragments and paint chips. One study estimates that a spacecraft that’s in space for more than five years will be hit over 30,000 times, but most space junk is too small to matter.

Before each shuttle mission, the US Air Force and NASA analyze the shuttle’s orbit so it can stay clear of the 9,000 known pieces of large debris. There are zones that are fairly clear of debris, and these are used by the shuttles. NASA has adjusted the flight paths of 8 shuttles in order to avoid space junk.

Space shuttles, which were designed in the 1970s, weren’t built to take hits from space junk, because there wasn?t much of it out there then. In 1997, the U.S. National Research Council advised NASA to do a thorough risk assessment to determine the likelihood that the shuttle could be severely damaged by meteoroids and orbital debris. They said space debris could cause risks “during launch or re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere.”

Space exploration is essential, but there are still vital experiments we need to do here on Earth.

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