Sat, Mar 14, 2009 - Page 1 News List

Junk sparks scare on space station

CLOSE ENCOUNTER The International Space Station was briefly evacuated after information about a cloud of orbiting junk arrived too late for an avoidance maneuver

AFP , WASHINGTON

The crew of the International Space Station sought refuge in a Soyuz space capsule on Thursday amid a threatened close encounter with a debris cloud, highlighting the growing dangers of space junk.

The scare arose when the three-member crew learned too late to take evasive action as an approaching cloud of debris exposed the space station to the risk of a potentially catastrophic collision.

NASA appeared most concerned about a piece of a satellite motor that was close enough to ordinarily have forced the space station to undertake an evasive maneuver.

But Laura Rochon, a NASA spokeswoman at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, had said the risk of collision was “very low.”

“The piece itself is about one-third of an inch [8.5mm] and it’s about 4.5 kilometers away,” she said.

Americans Mike Fincke, the mission commander, and Sandy Magnus, the No. 2 flight engineer, as well as their Russian colleague Yuri Lonchakov, the No. 1 flight engineer, exited the space craft and battened themselves down in the Soyuz spacecraft.

NASA said the move was a precaution in case the crew needed to detach from the space station.

Crew members had half-locked the Soyuz doors and would have been ready to slam the hatches shut “and quickly depart the ­station in the unlikely event the debris had collided with the station and caused a depressurization,” NASA said.

The all-clear was sounded at 12:45pm EDT (4:45pm GMT) about 10 minutes after the crew entered the capsule, the space agency said.

“The debris threat to the International Space Station has passed,” NASA said in a statement.

The US Strategic Command (STRATCOM) notified NASA of the debris field late on Wednesday, but NASA said it was too late for flight controllers to coordinate a “debris avoidance” maneuver.

“Every once in a while, the crew has to do orbital debris avoidance maneuvers but this time they didn’t do that because we have an upcoming launch possibly on Sunday and they need to stay at the same altitude,” Rochon said.

The US Joint Space Operations Center tracks about 18,000 objects in orbit, so many that it has to decide which to follow most closely, like those that might fly by the International Space Station or manned space flights.

Experts estimate that there are more than 300,000 orbital objects measuring between 1cm and 10cm in diameter and “billions” of smaller pieces.

Traveling at speeds of up to thousands of kilometers an hour they pose a risk of catastrophic damage to spacecraft.

Last month, a spent Russian satellite collided with an Iridium communications satellite, showering more debris in an orbit 436km above the space station.

US military trackers failed to anticipate that collision, the first between two intact satellites, the Pentagon said at the time.

The worst debris clouds are in low Earth orbit (LEO), between 800km and 1,500km above the Earth, and in geostationary orbit, about 35,000km up.

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