The International Space Station (ISS) is a dangerous place to be lately. First, the craft came close to being hit by a piece of Russian space junk, then a coolant mechanism failed on-board the space station.
On 17 March, NASA engineers were forced to fire thrusters on the space station to avoid colliding with a piece of a crippled Russian weather satellite, launched 35 years ago. After the maneuver, mission control determined the debris would have missed the orbiting station, even if they had not performed the move. NASA officials told the press they preferred "playing it safe" in the uncertain circumstances.
Just two days later, a coolant loop failed aboard the station. Systems in laboratories throughout the space station either changed over a different coolant loop, or shut down altogether. NASA engineers believe the cause of the problem was a faulty valve aboard the station. Mission managers were quick to point out the crew is in no danger from the system breakdown.
"Some non-critical systems have been powered down inside the Harmony node, the Kibo laboratory and the Columbus laboratory while the teams work to figure out what caused the valve to not function correctly and how to fix it," NASA said in a statement.
While NASA personnel and others work out what caused the failure of the valve, the problem of space debris continues to be a growing problem. According to some estimates, there are half a million pieces of garbage in orbit around the Earth. These objects come in all sizes, and can race around the planet at tens of thousands of miles per hour. Space debris can penetrate spacesuits, solar panels, and the thin skins of spacecraft, including the ISS.
The recent change in altitude is not expected to affect the launch of a three-person crew heading to the space station on 25 March. The crew aboard that mission will include Steve Swanson, Oleg Artemyev and Alexander Skvortsov.
A private mission to resupply the station, scheduled for 16 March, was postponed until the end of the month, possibly due to payload contamination.
Similar changes in altitude for the ISS have taken place over the last several years, in order to avoid other pieces of garbage hurtling through low-Earth orbit.
Several groups have formed, trying to find an answer to the problem of floating junk in space. The orbital debris consists of large objects, such as dilapidated satellites, to disposable parts of spacecraft that never burned up in the Earth's atmosphere, and small pieces like screws and small tools.
This space waste could prove costly during the colonization of space.