Space station readies evasive action to dodge space junk

International Space Station

The ISS is a big target for space debris, but it’s no sitting duck.


Bad news: There’s space debris coming in too close to the International Space Station. Good news: It’s been spotted, and the ISS will perform an evasive maneuver to stay safe. 

Russian space agency Roscosmos announced on Wednesday that an automated warning system had spotted a piece of space junk calculated to come within about 2,000 feet (600 meters) of the ISS on Thursday, US time (1 a.m. UTC on Friday). 

Roscosmos specialists have calculated an orbital correction. A Russian Progress cargo spacecraft docked to the ISS will fire its engines later today for 361 seconds, or just a hair over six minutes, to move the space station out of the way. 

The debris is from Fengyun-1C, a weather satellite deliberately destroyed by China in an antisatellite test in 2007. A paper on the resulting debris cloud estimated that the satellite broke into around 4,000 objects that were big enough to track, as well as many thousands more smaller pieces. 

The ISS has had to dodge space junk before. An “unknown piece of space debris” in late 2020 triggered a similar evasive maneuver. In May 2021, a routine inspect revealed that a different and tiny piece of debris hit the station’s robotic arm, leaving a visible mark.

Space junk is a growing problem as defunct satellites, bits of spacecraft and leftover rocket parts clog orbit. NASA has said the ISS typically has to dodge space debris about once a year on average: “If another object is projected to come within a few kilometers of the International Space Station (ISS), the ISS will normally maneuver away from the object if the chance of a collision exceeds 1 in 10,000.”

There are currently three astronauts on the ISS: Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov of Roscosmos and NASA’s Mark Vande Hei. Four other astronauts recently returned from orbit with the end of the SpaceX Crew-2 mission. The SpaceX Crew-3 mission is scheduled to launch later on Wednesday.

As more satellites and spacecraft head into orbit around Earth, the junk issue will continue to grow while efforts to clean it up (like this space-harpoon test and this claw idea) are coming along slowly.

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