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NASA weighs risk as junk from an old rocket heads toward space station

NASA is assessing the potential risk of a piece of space debris that’s been spotted heading toward the International Space Station (ISS).

The space agency said the debris is a piece of an old rocket and may come close to the ISS early on Friday.

NASA said the seven crew members aboard the space station are not believed to be in any danger, but if the risk to the station is deemed to be serious, NASA and its international partners will conduct a debris avoidance maneuver to temporarily adjust the orbit of the ISS.

The closest pass of the debris is likely to take place at about 5:30 a.m. ET on Friday, with any maneuver occurring at around 3 a.m.

Highlighting the growing problem of hazardous space debris and the pressing need for an effective solution to remove it, NASA said the debris, labeled “Object 39915,” comes from an old Pegasus rocket launched by the U.S. in May 1994 and whose upper stage broke up two years later.

Controllers and experts in Houston are assessing the potential risk of a piece of rocket debris that may pass close to the station early Friday.

— International Space Station (@Space_Station) December 3, 2021

Near-Earth space debris poses a constant threat to the ISS as well as the numerous functioning satellites that provide important services back on the ground.

Just a few weeks ago, astronauts aboard the space station were ordered to take shelter in their docked spacecraft after controllers suddenly spotted a new cloud of debris heading close to the station.

The junk was created by a Russian missile test carried out on one of its old satellites earlier the same day, with the blast reportedly creating around 1,500 pieces of debris.

Fortunately, the ISS suffered no damage in that particular incident, but the angry international response to the missile test suggested the space station and its inhabitants had been in real danger.

NASA and its partners have technology in place to help it track large pieces of space debris, giving it enough time to take evasive action if necessary.

A number of companies are developing ways to clear tens of thousands of pieces of potentially dangerous near-Earth space junk, though it could still be some time before such systems are deployed. In the meantime, space agencies will have to deal with the issue by moving their satellites to avoid potential collisions.

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Trevor Mogg
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