Yesterday, NASA and Russian flight controllers performed an “avoidance maneuver” to protect the International Space Station from a wayward chunk of space debris. This episode—already the third of its kind this year—highlights a growing problem and the importance of mitigating potential collisions in space.
Low Earth orbit (LEO) is vast and mostly empty, but when you have thousands upon thousands of objects zipping around at speeds over 6 miles per second (10 km/s), this space in space suddenly seems a lot smaller.
Such was the concern earlier this week when NASA, along with U.S. Space Command, detected an unknown piece of space debris that was expected to come uncomfortably close to the International Space Station. To safeguard the outpost and its crew, NASA and Russian flight controllers scheduled an impromptu “avoidance maneuver” to place the ISS out of harm’s way.
To do so, they fired thrusters belonging to Russia’s Progress 75 resupply spacecraft, which is currently docked to the Zvezda service module. Given the late notice, mission controllers had all three members of the Expedition 63 crew—Chris Cassidy, Anatoly Ivanishin, and Ivan Vagner—temporarily relocate to the Russian segment so they could be in close proximity to the Soyuz MS-16 spacecraft. NASA said this was done “out of an abundance of caution” and that “at no time was the crew in any danger.”
The piece of space junk was projected to pass to within 0.86 miles (1.39 kilometers) of the International Space Station, with the closest approach happening on Tuesday, September 22 at 6:21 pm EDT. The avoidance maneuver, which required just 150 seconds to complete, was performed about an hour earlier. NASA and Russian flight controllers worked in tandem to make it happen.
Once it was all over, the hatches between the U.S. and Russian segments were reopened and life resumed to normal.