In 2006, a piece of circuit board no bigger than a grain of rice pierced a radiator panel aboard the space shuttle Atlantis, barely missing a coolant tube that helps regulate the shuttle's temperature. A few inches in the wrong direction, Johnson said, and Atlantis would have been forced to fly home early.
"If it penetrated the tube, it would have been a bad day," said Johnson, whose orbital-debris office was established in 1979 to help safeguard shuttle flights. Investigators determine the source of the debris by examining residue left in the impact crater.
The worst space-debris collision on record occurred in 1996, when a briefcase-sized piece of shrapnel from an exploded French rocket severed the stabilization boom of a French military satellite. Controllers reprogrammed the satellite's computer so that it could stay in orbit.
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