The International Space Station (ISS) has maneuvered away from debris that was expected to approach the orbital outpost on Monday night.
The ISS fired its Progress 81 thrusters for 5 minutes and 5 seconds at 8:25 p.m. The procedure had no impact on station operations, where seven astronauts currently reside. Even without the maneuver, NASA said the piece of space debris would likely have passed within about three miles of the station, but the precautionary measure ensured an even greater distance was put between the two objects.
The scrap was identified as part of Cosmos-1408, an electronic signals intelligence satellite launched by the Soviet Union in September 1982 but which went dormant a couple of years later. The Russians destroyed Cosmos-1408 in a weapons test last November, an act that created around 1,500 pieces of space debris that currently orbit between 190 miles and 680 miles above Earth, within range of the ISS, which orbits Earth. about 250 miles.
In a worrying incident that occurred shortly after the satellite’s destruction, astronauts aboard the ISS were ordered to take shelter on the Crew Dragon and Soyuz spacecraft as the station approached a cloud of space debris comprising parts of Cosmos-1408.
At the time, NASA chief Bill Nelson expressed his anger at the situation, describing the satellite attack as “reckless and dangerous,” adding: “It is unthinkable that Russia would endanger not only American astronauts and international partners on the ISS, but also its own cosmonauts.
NASA research suggests there are tens of millions of pieces of space debris in low Earth orbit. Most are less than 1mm long and untraceable, but there are also estimated to be around half a million marble-sized pieces.
With the space station traveling around Earth at around 17,500 mph, the impact of any object could cause serious damage or much worse. In addition to the ISS, satellites that provide vital communication services and other data could also be put out of action by a collision with space debris.
To protect operational orbital equipment from debris impacts, NASA and its partners have several measures in place. The European Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany, for example, has technology that tracks orbital debris, and equipment there can ensure satellites move out of harm’s way when it detects a potential collision.
In plans to clean up the debris, several companies have been developing a range of solutions, including an iodine propulsion system, a giant space harpoon, and magnet technology. But it could still be some time before a fully tested and successful system is implemented.