The orbiting laboratory, currently home to six astronauts from three countries, burned its thrusters at 11:10 a.m. EST, boosting its orbit slightly to take it out of range of a piece of broken satellite that was due to pass between 0.6 and 15 miles (1 and 24 km) of the station today.
“At this point indications are that the debris avoidance maneuver was carried out as planned and carried out successfully,” NASA commentator Pat Ryan said on NASA TV. “The crewmembers continued their work onboard while the burn happened this morning.”
The space junk was part of the Iridium 33 communications satellite, which collided with a defunct Russian Cosmos spacecraft in 2009, creating a cloud of thousands of bits of debris that now orbit Earth and sometimes pose a collision hazard to working spacecraft.
The particular bit of space junk the station dodged today was only about 4 inches (10 cm) in diameter, but could have been catastrophic to the $100 billion outpost if the two had collided at their high orbital speeds.
Today’s maneuver comes coincidentally timed with two other space junk events: the release of Space Junk 3D, a new IMAX film chronicling the growing danger of space debris in orbit, and the looming crash of the failed Russian Mars probe Phobos Grunt, which is expected to fall back to Earth in the next few days.
An international campaign to assess the imminent atmospheric reentry of Russia’s Phobos-Grunt Mars craft is being coordinated by experts in ESA’s Space Debris Office. Participants include NASA and Roscosmos as part of the 12-member Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee.
The collision occurred 490 miles (790 km) above Siberia. The space station flies in an orbit about 220 miles (354 km) above Earth. “This is like over 400 kilometers above the station, so we do believe that some of the debris is going down through station altitude. But it’s a very, very small minority of the debris clouds,” said Nicholas Johnson. The NY Times has an interactive graphic (right).
“It’s going to take a while” to get an accurate count of the debris fragments, Johnson said. “It’s very, very difficult to discriminate all those objects when they’re really close together. And so, over the next couple of days, we’ll have a much better understanding.”
Analytical Graphics created the simulation (below).
The crash of two satellites has generated an estimated tens of thousands of pieces of space junk that could circle Earth and threaten other satellites for the next 10,000 years, space experts said Friday. Any of tens of the tens of thousands of particles, 1 centimeter (half an inch) and larger, could significantly damage or even destroy a satellite.
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