With space junk piling up around our planet, the International Space Station needed to perform a last-minute avoidance maneuver Tuesday to steer clear of an “unknown piece of space debris expected to pass within several kilometers.”
Mission Control in Houston conducted the move at 2:19 p.m. PT using the Russian Progress resupply spacecraft docked to the ISS to help nudge the station out of harm’s way.
“Out of an abundance of caution, the Expedition 63 crew will relocate to their Soyuz spacecraft until the debris has passed by the station,” NASA said in a statement prior to the move.
The maneuver went off smoothly, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine reported. “The astronauts are coming out of safe haven,” he tweeted after the ISS relocated.
The closest approach for the space junk happened at 3:21 p.m. PT on Tuesday. “At no time was the crew in any danger,” the space agency said in a follow-up statement.
NASA flight controllers tracked the debris. There are a lot of different types of space junk, ranging from used rocket parts to tiny pieces of paint that have fallen off spacecraft. The ISS is built to withstand impacts from very small objects, but larger ones are given a wide berth.
NASA estimates the station must perform avoidance maneuvers about once a year on average, but 2020 has been busy. “The Space Station has maneuvered three times in 2020 to avoid debris. In the last two weeks, there have been three high concern potential conjunctions. Debris is getting worse!” Bridenstine tweeted.
The NASA chief called for the government to fund efforts to mitigate orbital junk.
“The ISS is the most heavily shielded spacecraft ever flown,” the space agency says in a FAQ on orbital debris. The ISS move is a rare occurrence, but it could become more common.