Operators of the International Space Station had to take swift action to dodge a piece of space junk coming its way on Tuesday, September 22.
The situation was so serious that the three Expedition 63 crew members were told to move to the Russian segment of the station so they would be closer to the Soyuz MS-16 spacecraft in case they needed to make an emergency escape in the event of a catastrophic collision, though NASA insisted in a message on its website that “at no time was the crew in any danger.”
NASA and Russian flight controllers worked together to carry out a maneuver to adjust the space station’s orbit at 2:19 p.m. PT on Tuesday.
“The maneuver raised the station’s orbit out of the predicted path of the debris, which was estimated to come within 1.39 kilometers of the station,” NASA said. The size of the object wasn’t disclosed.
Once the avoidance maneuver has been completed, the crew — NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy, and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner — were able to resume their regular activities on board the station.
The station boosted its orbit out of the way of an unknown piece of space debris today after a docked resupply ship fired its engines at 5:19pm ET. The Exp 63 crew has resumed normal activities. More… https://t.co/LWOgLdshbQ pic.twitter.com/xoYwCyQDsS
— Intl. Space Station (@Space_Station) September 22, 2020
Space debris comes mostly from break-up events caused by explosions and collisions involving decommissioned satellites or discarded parts from rocket launches.
According to NASA, there are currently tens of millions of pieces of space debris orbiting Earth. While most of them are less than 1mm in length and impossible to track, there are also estimated to be around 500,000 marble-sized pieces among the debris.
With the space station orbiting Earth at around 17,500 mph, objects big and small could cause serious damage if they hit the orbiting outpost. The debris could also knock out functioning satellites, possibly knocking out communication links or causing other issues back on Earth while at the same time causing more space junk.
A few years back astronaut Tim Peake posted a photo of damage to a glass panel on the space station’s Cupola thought to have been caused by a tiny piece of debris whizzing through space, “possibly a paint flake or small metal fragment no bigger than a few thousandths of a millimeter across.”