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Close Encounter!

June 29th, 2011

photo credit: NASA

Close Encounter for the International Space Station

June 29, 2011 — A piece of space junk came uncomfortably close to the International Space Station yesterday — so close that astronauts had to get into their escape capsules as a precaution. Thankfully, the unidentified debris missed them by 1,100 miles (the distance between Fort Collins, Colorado and South Bend, Indiana, see below).


This was only the second time astronauts at the Space Station needed to be ready to evacuate because of a possible collision with space debris, but it was the nearest miss the Space Station has had.  Even NASA officials said it was a close call.

Amazingly, there’s a surprising amount of garbage in space — experts guess about a half a million pieces from the size of a marble on up. They’re tracked when they’re about the size of a softball (4 inches) and bigger.

A computer illustration showing the density of space junk in low-earth orbit. Credit: European Space Agency

The trash isn’t like the garbage we make here on earth, it’s leftovers from satellites and space missions, things like lens caps from cameras on satellites, nuts and bolts from space equipment, rocket pieces, and even paint flecks and droplets of coolant.

The problem is that because even the tiniest pieces travel at around 17,500 miles an hour, a collision at that speed could cause a lot of damage. In this case, the space debris was headed toward the International Space Station at 29,000 miles per hour!

Space is so huge, so why is there even a chance of a such a collision? Because all these things, including asteroids, are in orbit together.  And, because there’s more and more exploration in space, there’s an increasing amount of stuff left behind. The more garbage that’s left behind, the more chance of a crash which, when that happens, makes more debris.  A couple of years ago, two items turned into 2,000 when a Russian satellite and a U.S. communications satellite, crashed and broke apart.  It’s actually becoming a bit of a problem.

Normally, given enough time, they would have just moved the International Space Station out of range and out of danger, which has happened 12 times before. Usually, they need about three days’ notice. But in this case they only had about 14 hours to react, not enough time to move it, so they had to be ready just in case. Four minutes after they knew they were safe, the 6 astronauts at the space station got back to work.

The good news is there are people whose job it is to actually track the space debris to help keep astronauts and our working space equipment as safe as possible.  People are also working hard on finding ways to de-clutter space. What would your invention be for that?

Thanks to and The New York Times for their reports.


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