Science

Atlantis returns to Earth

The space shuttle Atlantis touched down just after 9 a.m. ET Wednesday on a landing strip at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, returning home after a 13-day journey in space and clearing the way for the U.S. military to shoot down a damaged spy satellite.

Shuttle landing clears way for U.S. military to take aim at dying spy satellite

The space shuttle Atlantis touched down just after 9 a.m. ET Wednesday on a landing strip at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, returning home after a 13-day journey in space and clearing the way for the U.S. military  to shoot down a damaged spy satellite.

The space shuttle Atlantis glides by family members during landing Wednesday morning at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. ((Terry Renna/Pool/Associated Press))

NASA had taken the unusual step of readying the backup touchdown site in Southern California to ensure a speedy landing, but with clear skies making for favourable weather conditions in Florida, NASA was able to clear the shuttle to return to Earth at its first opportunity.

The early landing of the shuttle gives the U.S. military a larger window to shoot down a damaged spy satellite before it enters Earth's atmosphere.

Pentagon officials said Wednesday the satellite could be shot down as early as tonight, but cautioned that it could be some time before they know if the plan was successful.

Military officials say the satellite, launched in Dec. 2006, contains a toxic rocket fuel called hydrazine which could spread to an area as large as two football fields if the satellite crashed on land.

Speaking at a news conference last week, Pentagon officials said hydrazine can harm anyone who comes in contact with it, causing a burning sensation similar to chlorine.

The Pentagon said they had roughly a week-long window to shoot down the satellite and wanted to do it after Atlantis landed so that the shuttle would not encounter any debris upon re-entry.

The Atlantis landing was a good ending to what had been a relatively smooth mission to the International space Station. During the mission, the shuttle and station crew installed the European Space Agency's $2-billion Columbus lab onto the station and attached science experiments to the lab's exterior.

The mission had only one delay — an illness to German astronaut Hans Schlegel that pushed back the crew's first spacewalk by one day.

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