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The International Space Station just dodged a collision with space junk

Published Sep 23rd, 2020 11:43AM EDT
space station debris
Image: NASA

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  • The International Space Station had to perform an avoidance maneuver to ensure it didn’t collide with a piece of unidentified debris orbiting Earth.
  • The crew took refuge in the Soyuz spacecraft as mission controllers used thrusters to push the space station on a safer course.
  • Space debris is a growing problem and poses a serious threat to crewed missions.

You know that feeling when you’re driving down the road and you see a piece of debris in your lane? You kind of freeze and try to figure out how you’re going to avoid it without swerving onto the shoulder or into the neighboring lane. Well, the International Space Station just had that exact same experience, only it wasn’t cruising down a country road, it was speeding around the Earth at nearly five miles per second.

As NASA reveals in a brief update posted to its website, the ISS was forced to perform a “space debris avoidance maneuver” to ensure that it wouldn’t crash into a big chunk of… something that was floating around Earth. Nobody really knows what it was, but the space station managed to avoid it, and the crew is safe and sound.

The debris — which, again, has not been identified, but there are so many possibilities it’s impossible to even guess — appeared to be on course to pass within a mile of the space station. That’s too close for comfort when you’re talking about a space laboratory, so the mission controllers took charge and fired up the Russian Progress spacecraft which is docked to the space station and used that to push the ISS out of harm’s way.

During the avoidance maneuver and while waiting for the debris to pass by, the entire crew of the space station took refuge in the Soyuz spacecraft docked to the space station. NASA described the decision as being made “out of an abundance of caution,” but this isn’t exactly a routine situation, so it’s clear that there was a significant threat.

NASA explains:

Using the ISS Progress 75 thrusters and with NASA and Russian flight controllers working in tandem, the International Space Station conducted a 150-second reboost Tuesday afternoon at 5:19 p.m. EDT to avoid a possible conjunction with an unknown piece of space debris. Because of the late notification of the possible conjunction, the three Expedition 63 crew members were directed to move to the Russian segment of the station to be closer to their Soyuz MS-16 spacecraft as part of the safe haven procedure out of an abundance of caution. At no time was the crew in any danger.

As NASA notes, as soon as the debris passed, it was back to business as usual on the space station, and the crew “resumed their regular activities.” Things are okay now, but the incident was a timely reminder of the serious threat that space junk poses to crewed missions.