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WASHINGTON - Astronauts prepared to unload a year's worth of supplies at the International Space Station after NASA said Monday a piece of Soviet space debris was not likely to collide with the orbiting lab.
The US space agency said it was tracking the space junk on Sunday, shortly after the shuttle Atlantis docked on its final mission, and warned that a maneuver with the shuttle's thrusters might be necessary to avoid it.
But those concerns were alleviated on Monday when the agency determined the two were not on a collision course after all.
"We got some updates since the docking yesterday and everything indicates that the debris will be well clear of the station," said flight director Jerry Jason, adding it was expected to pass 18 kilometers (11 miles) from the lab.
"So we are not going to take any action to move out of the way of this orbital debris," Jason said.
NASA has said such events are not uncommon and that 500,000 such objects are being tracked in the Earth's orbit.
This particular piece of space junk was part of Cosmos 375, a satellite launched in 1970 by the former Soviet Union and which collided with another satellite and broke apart.
"The original concern was that the way we were docking was going to push us a little closer to the debris," said Jason.
But the act of the shuttle latching on at the station slowed the velocity and "changed our orbit enough that it did not become a concern for the debris."
Meanwhile, the four US astronauts who arrived aboard Atlantis began work with their six colleagues at the ISS to transfer a year's worth of food and spare parts to the orbiting outpost.
Other supply ships from Europe, Japan and Russia will be able to stock the ISS when the shuttle program retires after Atlantis's mission, but the amount of cargo space available aboard the shuttle is unparalleled.
The Raffaello multipurpose logistics module was lifted out of the shuttle's cargo bay and placed with the help of a Canadian robotic arm onto the space station's Harmony node at 6:46 am (1046 GMT), NASA said.
The container is "packed with 9,403 pounds (4,265 kilograms) of spare parts, spare equipment, and other supplies -- including 2,677 pounds (1,215 kilograms) of food -- that will sustain space station operations for a year," NASA said.
The combined crew will all be transferring items from the Raffaello to the station and moving more than 5,600 pounds (2,540 kilograms) of old station gear, including a failed ammonia pump, back into the module for return to Earth.
"It is pretty much all hands on deck," said Jason. "It is going to be a very busy time period."
A spacewalk by American ISS crew members Ron Garan and Mike Fossum is set for Tuesday.
The duo has already stepped out together on three spacewalks in June 2008 as part of the STS-124 mission that delivered the Japanese Kibo lab to the ISS.
The shuttle's return to Earth is currently scheduled for July 20, though NASA may add an extra day to the mission.
"Things are looking good for an extension day, though the official decision will be made by the mission management team tomorrow or Wednesday," said Jason.
Atlantis's flight marks the end of an era for NASA, leaving Americans with no actively operating government-run human spaceflight program and no method for sending astronauts to space until private industry comes up with a new capsule, likely by 2015 at the earliest.
With the shuttle gone, only Russia's three-seat Soyuz capsules will be capable of carrying astronauts to the ISS at a cost of more than $50 million per seat.