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Astronauts on the ISS forced to shelter from dangerous space junk

The International Space Station.
The International Space Station NASA

Astronauts on board the International Space Station were roused from sleep last night and had to shelter in their spacecraft due to a threat from space debris. NASA described the situation as a “standard precautionary measure,” and the crew has now resumed its normal operations. The cause of the debris was the breaking up of a satellite in orbit, which was at an altitude similar to the station.

NASA posted a brief statement on X (formerly Twitter) saying that the crew of the ISS — currently at nine members, from the U.S. and Russia — had been altered to a potential debris issue and sent to shelter in their respective spacecraft. The spacecraft that astronauts arrive at the ISS on remain docked with the station throughout their stay, and these vehicles are more capable of withstanding debris strikes than the station itself. So if there is the possibility of debris impacting the station or another potentially dangerous event, the crew is sent to their spacecraft for safety. Currently docked to the ISS are a SpaceX Crew Dragon, a Russian Soyuz MS-25, and the new Boeing Starliner.

NASA did not specify exactly which satellite breakup had caused the threat, but according to the culprit is thought to be an inactive Russian spacecraft called Resurs P1. According to U.S. Space Command, the satellite broke up yesterday and created over 100 pieces of debris.

The astronauts were warned to take shelter just after 9 p.m. ET on Wednesday night, which, as the ISS operates on GMT time, would be the equivalent to 1 a.m. for them. After an hour of sheltering, the crew was allowed to return to their regular schedule.

Space junk is a growing problem, as objects such as non-functional satellites, rocket stages, and other pieces of debris are left in orbit. As these debris pieces are often moving at extremely high speeds relative to other objects, they can cause big problems if they impact each other. Impacts between objects create clouds of thousands of smaller debris pieces, with debris smeared across orbits.

This is particularly a problem for large, relatively fragile structures like the ISS or space telescopes. China’s space station was hit by space debris earlier this year, causing a partial power failure. And astronauts on the ISS have previously had to shelter from debris as well. Where possible, the ISS maneuvers to avoid large pieces of debris, but clouds of many small debris pieces are harder to avoid this way.

Scientists have called for greater environmental protections of space, including more strict regulations to prevent the proliferation of even more space junk.

Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
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