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Space Junk Forces ISS Astronauts to Take Shelter in 'Lifeboat' Capsules

Posted: 03/24/2012 9:48 am Updated: 05/08/2012 2:29 pm

Space Station 2

By: Tariq Malik
Published: 03/24/2012 01:53 AM EDT on SPACE.com

This story was updated at 8 a.m. ET.

A leftover piece of an old Russian satellite forced six astronauts on the International Space Station to take shelter in a pair of lifeboat-like space capsules today (March 24), but zipped harmlessly by the outpost to the crew's relief.

The piece of space junk was spotted too late to move the orbiting laboratory out of the way and flew as close as 6.8 miles (11 kilometers) when it zoomed by at about 2:38 a.m. EDT (0638 GMT), NASA officials said.

While the chances of collision were remote, the potential danger of a hit was enough for Mission Control to order the station crew — which includes three Russians, two Americans and a Dutch astronaut —to seek shelter in two docked Soyuz space capsules just in case a quick escape to Earth is required.

"I don't see anything, which is good news," one of the station astronauts said in Russian, which was translated in a NASA broadcast.

It was the third time in 12 years that station astronauts took shelter from a close space debris pass. [Space Junk Photos & Cleanup Concepts]

NASA and its partners typically order an avoidance maneuver when a piece of space junk is expected to pass close by the space station and there are several days of advance notice. But this latest space debris threat was initially spotted on Friday morning, too late to plan a major maneuver, NASA officials said.

"We're not too concerned about it, but it's too late to do a [debris avoidance maneuver]," station flight director Jerry Jason radioed station commander Daniel Burbank, of NASA, and his crew late Friday.

According to NASA updates, the space debris is a remnant of the Russian Cosmos 2251 communications satellite. In 2009, the defunct spacecraft crashed into the U.S. satellite Iridium 33 in a massive space collision that created a huge cloud of more debris. The crash created 2,000 pieces of orbital debris.

While the size of the space debris was difficult to pin down, it was "relatively small," NASA spokesman Rob Navias said during NASA TV commentary of the space trash flyby.

NASA astronaut Don Pettit, who is the other American aboard the space station, radioed Mission Control Friday to say he hoped to try and snap a photo of the space debris if it was possible. But the space debris whizzed by the space station unseen.

Space junk is a growing threat for astronauts on the space station, as well as other satellites orbiting Earth. According to recent estimates, there is about 6,000 tons of space debris in orbit today. NASA and the U.S. military's Space Surveillance Network regularly track about 20,000 pieces of the debris in order to help other active satellites avoid collisions with the orbital trash.

You can follow SPACE.com Managing Editor Tariq Malik on Twitter @tariqjmalikFollow SPACE.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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GALLERY: SPACE JUNK
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  • NASA explains that the low Earth orbit region of space is "the most concentrated area for orbital debris." NASA <a href="http://orbitaldebris.jsc.nasa.gov/photogallery/beehives.html" target="_hplink">says</a> of this image (and the following two pictures): <blockquote>The following graphics are computer generated images of objects in Earth orbit that are currently being tracked. Approximately 95% of the objects in this illustration are orbital debris, i.e., not functional satellites. The dots represent the current location of each item. The orbital debris dots are scaled according to the image size of the graphic to optimize their visibility and are not scaled to Earth. These images provide a good visualization of where the greatest orbital debris populations exist. Below are the graphics generated from different observation points.</blockquote>

  • <a href="http://orbitaldebris.jsc.nasa.gov/photogallery/beehives.html" target="_hplink">NASA</a> says of the image: The GEO Polar images are generated from a vantage point above the north pole, showing the concentrations of objects in LEO and in the geosynchronous region.

  • A rendering from the<a href="http://www.esa.int/SPECIALS/ESOC/SEMN2VM5NDF_mg_5_s.html" target="_hplink"> European Space Operations Center</a> shows objects in low Earth orbit. The ESOC says of the image: <blockquote>70% of all catalogued objects are in low-Earth orbit (LEO), which extends to 2000 km above the Earth's surface. To observe the Earth, spacecraft must orbit at such a low altitude. The spatial density of objects increases at high latitudes. Note: The debris field shown in the image is an artist's impression based on actual data. However the image does not show debris items in their actual size or density. Note: The debris objects shown in the images are an artist's impression based on actual density data. However, the debris objects are shown at an eggagerated size to make them visible at the scale shown.</blockquote>

  • Objects in low Earth orbit, as viewed from over the equator. (via <a href="http://www.esa.int/SPECIALS/ESOC/SEMN2VM5NDF_mg_6_s.html" target="_hplink">ESOC</a>)

  • An example of orbital debris impact. NASA writes of the image, "An impact that completely penetrated the antenna dish of the Hubble Space Telescope."

  • A photo of "orbital debris reentry," taken in 2001. "A Delta 2 third stage, known as a PAM-D (Payload Assist Module - Delta), reentered the atmosphere over the Middle East. The titanium motor casing of the PAM-D, weighing about 70 kg, landed in Saudi Arabia about 240 km from the capital of Riyadh," says NASA.

  • The impact of orbital debris on the panel of the Solar Max experiment.

  • Space Traffic Cam

    This 2009 photo provided by the Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp., shows technicians working on the Space-Based Space Surveillance satellite in Boulder, Colo. The satellite is a $500 million U.S. Air Force spacecraft that will provide the first full-time, space-based eye on thousands of other satellites and pieces of debris that could crash into American assets circling the Earth. (AP Photo/Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp.) NO SALES

  • Space Traffic Cam

    This 2009 photo provided by the Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp., shows technicians working on the Space-Based Space Surveillance satellite in Boulder, Colo. The satellite is a $500 million U.S. Air Force spacecraft that will provide the first full-time, space-based eye on thousands of other satellites and pieces of debris that could crash into American assets circling the Earth. (AP Photo/Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp.) NO SALES

  • Simulation Of An Explosion In GEO (After 2 Days)

    The <a href="http://www.esa.int/SPECIALS/ESOC/SEMN2VM5NDF_mg_1.html" target="_hplink">ESOC</a> explains what happens after an in-orbit explosion occurs: <blockquote>A geostationary satellite has a velocity of about 3 kms/second (11,000 kms/hour). The fragments are ejected with a much lower velocity and thus stay close to the initial orbit. However, some will travel a bit faster and others a bit slower. Within a few days the debris cloud will form a diffuse ring at 36,000 km altitude around the Earth.</blockquote>

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