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Astronauts scramble for escape pods as space junk threat gets serious

Some 22,000 chunks of space junk zip around the earth. On Saturday, six International Space Station astronauts scrambled for safety as a piece of a Russian satellite whizzed by.

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The International Space Station as it orbits the Earth. A discarded chunk of a Russian rocket forced six space station astronauts to seek shelter in escape capsules early Saturday.

NASA/AP

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The six earthlings – three Russians, two Americans, and a Dutchman – aboard the International Space Station were stirred from their slumber Saturday morning to jump into emergency escape pods, once again drawing into focus the growing dangers of hurtling space junk.

The astronauts, orbiting 200 miles above the planet, were told by ground control to scramble into two docked Soyuz spacecrafts in case a piece of a wrecked Russian satellite should smash into the ISS, which could have heavily damaged the platform as both objects were traveling at orbital speeds – 17,500 miles per hour. The emergency was called off after the chunk passed by at an approximate distance of nine miles – which in space terms is a near-miss.

"Everything went by the book and as expected, the small piece of cosmos satellite debris passed the international space station without incident,” said a NASA spokesman.

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Ground controllers did not believe the ISS was in extreme danger, but ordered the emergency maneuver after determining that the trajectories could intersect.

NASA says there are about 22,000 pieces of sizable space junk – primarily bits of old satellites – orbiting the earth and has in the past ordered the ISS crew to adjust the craft's path to avoid collisions. In all, NASA tracks nearly half a million pieces of space junk.

The piece that threatened the ISS Saturday morning came from the 2009 collision of the Iridium communications satellite and the Russian Cosmos 2251.

NASA spotted the latest threat too late for the crew to move the ISS safely out of the way. It was the third time in 12 years that astronauts were ordered to scramble for safety. Last June, a piece of debris came within 1,100 feet of the craft.

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