Astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) had to take shelter on Thursday, as debris left over from an earlier Russian mission to space whizzed past the orbiting outpost. As two Russian cosmonauts and one American huddled for an hour in their Soyuz spacecraft, prepared for an emergency trip back to Earth, space junk left over from a weather satellite went racing past the ISS.
Space debris is left over from most flights to space, and following more than six decades of trips to space, the amount of "junk" in orbit is becoming a serious problem. This is the fourth time in the 16-year history of the ISS that space travelers have taken shelter in a Soyuz space capsule as space debris threatened the orbiting outpost.
The ISS is the most complex machine ever placed into space. However, this mighty orbital outpost could suffer a catastrophic failure if it were ever to be struck by a piece of space junk traveling thousands of miles an hour. This incident on July 16 resulted in the threatening piece of debris missing the space station by one and a half miles, but the event highlights the dangers present for the orbiting vehicle.
Most of the time space debris threatens the space station, NASA officials have enough warning to move the ISS out of the way of the projectile. The object that threatened the ISS during this most recent incident was only recognized as a danger 90 minutes before a potential impact.
"Mission Control in Houston tracked a fragment of an old weather satellite and predicted a possible conjunction with the station at 8:01 a.m. EDT. Flight Director Ed Van Cise then ordered Commander Gennady Padalka and One-Year crew members Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko to take shelter in their docked Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft as a precaution," NASA officials reported on their website.
Normally, six space travelers inhabit the ISS at any given time. However, just three space travelers currently occupy the orbiting habitat.
"Back on Earth, three new Expedition 44 crew members from the U.S., Russia and Japan are counting down to their July 22 launch aboard the Soyuz TMA-17M spacecraft. The trio consisting of Soyuz Commander Oleg Kononenko and Flight Engineers Kjell Lindgren and Kimiya Yui are at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan for final prelaunch activities," NASA officials reported on their blog.
Following their departure from their emergency shelter, the trio reconfigured the space station for normal operations and returned to their regular activities.
"#ISScrew back to work after debris safely passes. New trio preps for launch from Kazakhstan," ISS mission managers tweeted following the safe passage of the space junk.