The strange black body was spotted by astronaut Dan Burbank floating below the spacecraft yesterday as it was still in orbit.
Atlantis’s crew of six immediately videoed images of it to mission control. The unidentified flying object worried Nasa because it could be part of the heatshield that protects the craft during reentry.
Their fears were reinforced by a series of readings from a sensor behind the shuttle’s leading wing that may be coincidental but could have been due to an impact or abormal vibrations. It was damage to a leading wing that caused the break-up of another shuttle, Columbia, in 2003, killing seven astronauts.
The object – which, incidentally, was not a flying saucer – could also be something else shaken loose during routine tests of the shuttle’s steering jets and hydraulic system. Atlantis’s crew were due to touch down at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida today. The landing was delayed for 24 hours to allow Nasa chiefs to assess the problem.
If the shield is damaged, astronauts could make a spacewalk to carry out repairs. In an emergency, they could even return to the international space station to await rescue by another shuttle.
The picture shows a view of the Atlantis today from a camera on the end of its robotic arm. Picture: Nasa.
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