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Space station astronauts take shelter as cloud of debris threatens their safety

The seven astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) were forced to take shelter in the Crew Dragon and Soyuz spacecraft early on Monday as the orbiting outpost came close to a cloud of hazardous space junk.

According to NASA, the junk had been created after Russia destroyed one of its old satellites in an antisatellite (ASAT) missile test, with the blast reportedly creating around 1,500 separate pieces of debris.

No damage has been reported to the ISS, and NASA said it will continue to monitor the situation over the coming days.

Describing the emergency, the space agency said the crewmembers made their way to their spacecraft shortly before 2 a.m. ET and stayed there until around 4 a.m.

The ISS is “passing through or near” the debris cloud every 90 minutes as it orbits 250 miles above Earth. The astronauts were told to shelter for the second and third passes following a risk assessment by the debris office and ballistics specialists at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

NASA response

In a statement on the incident, NASA administrator Bill Nelson didn’t hold back, describing Russia’s satellite strike as “reckless and dangerous.”

Nelson said: “I’m outraged by this irresponsible and destabilizing action. With its long and storied history in human spaceflight, it is unthinkable that Russia would endanger not only the American and international partner astronauts on the ISS, but also their own cosmonauts. Their actions are reckless and dangerous, threatening as well the Chinese space station and the taikonauts on board.”

The NASA chief said that “all nations have a responsibility to prevent the purposeful creation of space debris from ASATs and to foster a safe, sustainable space environment.”

The U.S State Department also issued a statement, describing the satellite strike as “dangerous and irresponsible.” It added that the Russian satellite strike has significantly increased the risk to the ISS crew, as well as to other spaceflight activities.

The U.S. State Department confirms and condemns that Russia conducted an anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) test in low Earth orbit.

Full statement:

— Michael Sheetz (@thesheetztweetz) November 15, 2021

Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, attempted to downplay the incident, saying: “The orbit of the object, which forced the crew today to move into spacecraft according to standard procedures, has moved away from the ISS orbit. The station is in the green zone.”

Dangers of space junk

According to earlier NASA research, there are already tens of millions of pieces of space debris orbiting Earth. Most are less than 1mm long and impossible to track, but there are also estimated to be around 500,000 marble-sized pieces among the orbiting junk.

The space station orbits Earth at around 17,500 mph, so any object striking the facility has the potential to cause serious damage and risk to life. Functioning satellites providing important communication services and other data could also be knocked out by a collision with space debris, with the impact potentially creating more junk.

The addition of a new cloud of debris is a serious cause of concern, with NASA and its counterparts using special monitoring technology to track it as well as they can, and adjusting the space station’s orbit if necessary.

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Trevor Mogg
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