- NASA says that “an unknown piece of space debris” flew uncomfortably near the International Space Station on Tuesday.
- Debris, which was predicted to zip past the ISS at 18:21 ET, would have arrived within 1.39 kilometers of the station.
- However, mission inspectors fired the engine of an attached Russian spaceship to move the circuit laboratory out of the way.
- The threat of space debris has increased in recent decades, more satellites are launched, countries test space weapons and dead or inactivated spacecraft crash into each other.
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A “piece of unknown space debris”
Engineers predicted that the mystery of space debris would zip at the space station at 6:21 p.m. ET at a distance of just 1.39 kilometers or less than 1.5 miles away. It is an extremely close shave for objects moving about 17,500 km / h, or more than ten times faster than a fast bullet.
Although a miss failed, NASA acted out of “an abundance of caution” to avoid a collision with the football field size facility by performing an evasive maneuver.
During the operation, the three crew members from Expedition 63 who live aboard the station – astronaut Chris Cassidy and cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner – sealed inside a Soyuz spacecraft attached to the ISS. In the unlikely event that debris actually hit the station, this would have improved their chances of escaping.
Then, starting at 5:19 p.m., Mission Control fired the thrusters for a Russian spaceship for 150 seconds to increase the larger orbiting laboratory complex to which it was attached from damage.
Such drastic maneuvers are standard protocols if there is greater than 1 in 10,000 chances of a collision, according to NASA.
Shortly afterwards, crew members left their Soyuz “safe haven,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted.
The more objects we launch into orbit, the worse our problem with space debris becomes
Space debris has been a problem for the ISS for several years. The station has performed at least 29 evasive maneuvers since 1999, although almost misses are becoming more common.
“@Space_Station has maneuvered three times in 2020 to avoid debris. In the last two weeks, there have been 3 potential conjunctions with great concern,” Bridenstine said in another tweet. “Garbage gets worse!”
Even small debris is a big threat; a hit of a 10-centimeter aluminum sphere would resemble a detonating 15-pound TNT, NASA senior scientist Jack Bacon told Wired in 2010.
And in Earth’s orbit right now, millions of pieces of space debris are flying around at similar speeds, including more than 650,000 objects that are softball to nail sizes, as Business Insider previously reported.
That number is only expected to increase as the United States and other countries enter a new era of commercial space travel and satellite use. Of the nearly ten thousand satellites that humans have put into orbit since the 1950s, about 70% of them are destroyed, disabled or dead, according to The New Yorker. Sometimes a dead satellite can collide with another dead satellite, or a functional one, and generate huge new clouds of debris.
In addition, the United States, Russia, and India have in recent years tested anti-satellite weapons that launch a “death vehicle” (essentially a large bullet) at a large missile to wipe out spacecraft in orbit and disperse countless pieces of debris during the process.
If enough debris is made, the expanding chaos can trigger what is known as the Kessler Syndrome, where so much debris flies around the planet to launch almost anything in space would be too risky.
Essentially, we can get caught up in our own rubbish, as Donald J. Kessler, the astrophysicist behind Kessler’s syndrome theory, has said.
“We are entering a new era of garbage control,” he wrote in 2009. “An era that will be dominated by a slowly increasing number of random catastrophic collisions.”
Currently, the US military-controlled space surveillance network (SSN) and its partners monitor as many objects in space as possible – plus all potential space collisions. The network documents hundreds of thousands of possible conjunctions (or almost misses) each year and notifies satellite operators – and agencies like NASA – as far in advance as possible to avoid a hit.
By 2020, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Office of Space Commerce has sought $ 15 million in additional funding for its budget next year to increase efforts to monitor and remove space debris from orbit. These funds have not yet been approved, as Bridenstine noted after avoiding the ISS.
“It’s time for Congress to give @CommerceGov the $ 150 miles that @POTUS is asking for the Office of Space Commerce,” he tweeted.
Dave Mosher contributed with reporting.