- NASA says an “unknown piece of space debris” flew awkwardly near the International Space Station on Tuesday.
- The wreckage, which was scheduled to pass the ISS at 6:21 p.m. ET, would come within 1.39 kilometers (0.86 miles) of the station.
- However, mission controllers fired the engine of an attached Russian cargo spacecraft to displace the orbital laboratory from the road.
- The threat of space debris has grown in recent decades as more satellites are launched, countries test space weapons and dead or disabled spacecraft crash into each other.
- Visit the Business Insider homepage for more stories.
A “piece of unknown space debris”
Engineers predicted that the mysterious space debris would reach the space station around 6:21 p.m. ET at a distance of just 1.39 kilometers or less than 0.9 miles. This is an extremely close shave for objects moving at about 17,500 mph, or more than 10 times faster than speeding.
Although a pass was envisaged, NASA acted with “abundance of caution” to avoid a collision with the football-sized facility by conducting an avoidance maneuver.
During the operation, the three members of the Expedition 63 crew who live aboard the station – astronauts Chris Cassidy and cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Wagner – locked themselves in the Soyuz spacecraft attached to the ISS. In the unlikely event that debris actually hit the station, this would improve their chances of escape.
Then, starting at about 5:19 p.m., the Mission Control fired the propulsion devices of a Russian cargo spacecraft for 150 seconds to reinforce the larger orbital laboratory complex to which it was attached so that it could not.
Such drastic maneuvers are standard protocol if there is more than 1 in 10,000 chance of a collision, according to NASA.
Shortly afterwards, the crew members left their “safe haven” at Soyuz, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstein wrote on Twitter.
The more objects we put into orbit, the worse our problem with space junk becomes.
Space debris has been a problem for the ISS for years. The station has performed at least 29 avoidance maneuvers since 1999, although omissions are becoming more frequent.
“@Space_Station has maneuvered 3 times in 2020 to avoid debris. In the last two weeks, there have been 3 potentially related troubled connections,” Bridenstein said in another tweet. “The debris is getting worse!”
Even small pieces of garbage are a big threat; A 10-centimeter impact with an aluminum sphere would be like blowing up 15 kilograms of TNT, senior NASA scientist Jack Bacon told Wired in 2010.
And in Earth’s orbit, millions of pieces of space debris are currently flying around at similar speeds, including more than 650,000 softball-sized objects, according to Business Insider.
This number is only expected to increase as the United States and other nations enter a new era of commercial space travel and satellite use. Of the nearly 10,000 satellites that humans have launched into orbit since the 1950s, about 70 percent have been destroyed, disabled or dead, according to The New Yorker. Sometimes a dead satellite can collide with another dead or functional satellite, generating huge new clouds of debris.
In addition, the United States, Russia, and India have tested in recent years anti-satellite weapons that launch a “killing vehicle” (essentially a large bullet) onto a large rocket to wipe out spacecraft into orbit, spreading countless pieces of debris in the process.
If enough debris is made, the expanding chaos could cause the so-called Kessler’s syndrome, in which so much rubbish flies around the planet that launching almost anything in space would be too risky.
Essentially, we could get caught up in our own trash, as Donald J. said. Kessler, the astrophysicist behind Kessler’s syndrome theory.
“We are entering a new era of debris control,” he wrote in 2009. “An era that will be dominated by a slowly growing number of accidental catastrophic collisions.”
For now, the US-controlled Space Surveillance Network (SSN) and its partners are monitoring as many objects in space as possible – plus all potential space collisions. The network documents hundreds of thousands of possible connections (or almost gaps) each year, notifying satellite operators – and agencies like NASA – as soon as possible to avoid a collision.
In 2020, the US Department of Commerce’s Space Trade Office requested additional funding for its budget next year for $ 15 million to increase efforts to monitor and remove space debris from orbit. These funds have not yet been approved, as noted by Bridenstine after the ISS avoidance maneuver.
“It’s time for Congress to provide @CommerceGov with the $ 15 million requested by @POTUS for the Space Trade Service,” he wrote on Twitter.
Dave Mosher contributed to the reporting.