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ISS forced to steer clear of a functioning satellite

The International Space Station (ISS) was forced to make a maneuver to avoid a potential collision earlier this week.

The ISS is occasionally forced to take such action to avoid potential damage, but on this occasion, rather than dodging space debris, the facility steered clear of a functioning satellite.

The incident highlights the issue of growing congestion in near-Earth orbit amid an uptick in satellite deployments in recent years.

According to a message posted by NASA, the docked Progress 83 cargo ship fired its engines for just over five minutes on Monday to move the station to a slightly higher orbit, taking it further away from an approaching Earth-imaging satellite reportedly belonging to North Carolina-based Satellogic.

About 20 minutes before Progress fired its thrusters to raise the station’s orbit, controllers were able to confirm that the satellite would pass at a distance of about 1.7 miles (2.7 kilometers) even without the altitude change. Despite the safe distance, the decision was taken to proceed with the maneuver as Progress’s thrusters were already enabled, a spokesperson told SpaceNews.

The space site noted that the orbit of the Satellogic satellite, along with nine others that were launched at the same time in 2020, has been decaying, a situation that means the ISS and other functioning satellites in a similar orbit may have to perform additional avoidance maneuvers in the future as the satellites cross their path.

NASA and its counterparts are constantly monitoring the orbits of satellites and large pieces of space debris close to Earth, so orbital adjustments aren’t uncommon.

While most ISS orbital adjustments are planned in good time, emergency incidents occasionally occur. One particularly serious episode took place in 2021 when crewmembers had to move to their docked spaceships in case of a serious strike by a cloud of junk that could have forced their evacuation from the ISS. In the event, the station avoided any damage and the crewmembers could return safely to the facility to continue their work.

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Trevor Mogg
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