Astronauts take shelter as space station dodges orbital junk

The International Space Station just dodged a fast-moving hunk of orbiting junk.

Controllers maneuvered the station away from a potential collision with a piece of debris today (Sept. 22) at 5:19 p.m. EDT (2119 GMT). They did so by firing the thrusters on a Russian Progress cargo spacecraft that’s docked to the orbiting lab’s Zvezda service module, NASA officials said in an update today.

The three astronauts currently living aboard the station — NASA’s Chris Cassidy and cosmonauts Anatoli Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner — sheltered in the station’s Russian segment during the maneuver to be closer to their Soyuz spacecraft, the NASA update stated.  

This was done “out of an abundance of caution,” the update said. “At no time was the crew in any danger.”

The trio’s stay near the Soyuz, which will bring them back down to Earth next month, was quite brief.

“Maneuver Burn complete. The astronauts are coming out of safe haven,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted at 5:25 p.m. EDT (2125 GMT) today, just six minutes after the Progress thruster firing.

Space junk is a growing problem in Earth orbit. Nearly 129 million pieces of debris are whizzing around our planet at the moment, about 34,000 of which are more than 4 inches (10 centimeters) wide, according to estimates by the European Space Agency.

At the International Space Station’s altitude, roughly 250 miles (400 kilometers) up, material zooms around Earth at about 17,500 mph (28,200 kph) — so fast that a collision with even a tiny shard of debris could do serious damage to the orbiting lab. 

Hence today’s evasive action. The 150-second-long Progress burn boosted the station above the trajectory of the unknown piece of debris, which would have taken the junk within 0.86 miles (1.39 kilometers) of the orbiting lab at 6:21 p.m. EDT (2221 GMT), the NASA update stated.

Junk-dodging maneuvers aren’t unheard of for the orbiting lab. In January 2012, for example, controllers moved the station to avoid a potential collision with a piece of debris generated by a 2007 Chinese anti-satellite test.


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