NASA delays return for space shuttle after mystery object spotted

NASA delayed the planned landing of space shuttle Atlantis by at least a day Tuesday after engineers spotted an object that may have accidentally flown out of its cargo bay.

Landing had been scheduled for Wednesday morning. But a poor weather forecast and concerns that something crucial floated out of the craft prompted the delay, space shuttle communicator Terry Virts told the crew.

"Big interest in whether we're going to be doing any robotics tomorrow," responded Atlantis commander Brent Jett, referring to using the shuttle's robotic arm to inspect the spacecraft.

NASA engineers think the object may have shook loose from the shuttle during the firing of jets in preparation for landing. NASA managers may order Atlantis' robotic arm to be taken out again for an inspection, and the space agency hasn't ruled out the possibility of having the crew return to the space station.

Sensors on the shuttle's right wing detected some kind of impact about the same time the object was first spotted, but NASA officials said it was more likely the sensors were triggered by the spacecraft shaking during the jet firings.

A Russian Soyuz TMA-9 capsule with an Iranian-American telecommunications entrepreneur, an astronaut and a cosmonaut was heading to the space station for a docking set for early Wednesday.

Engineers are concerned because they don't know what the object is or whether it's a crucial piece of the shuttle, reports AP.

"The question is what is it? Is it something benign? Or is it something more critical we should pay attention to," said Wayne Hale, space shuttle program manager. "We want to make sure we're safe before committing to that critical journey through the atmosphere."

NASA wanted an extra day to do a detailed photographic analysis of the shuttle and its cargo bay area, NASA spokesman Doug Peterson had said earlier. Already NASA had been using cameras to scan the cargo area.