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NASA Orders Astronauts To Seek Refuge From Space Junk

April 5, 2011

NASA ordered three astronauts to seek shelter in their attached capsule after a small piece of space junk drifted dangerously close to the International Space Station (ISS) on Tuesday.

The space agency gave the order after determining there was not enough time to steer the orbiting outpost away from the space junk.

The debris is from a Chinese satellite that was deliberately destroyed in 2007 as part of a weapons test.  It was projected to pass within three miles of the space station, warranting a red threat level.

The ISS had to move out of the way of an orbiting remnant from a two-satellite collision in 2009 last Friday.

Debris is an increasingly serious problem in orbit because its threat of colliding and destroying a spacecraft.  Debris travels 5 miles a second and can cause severe damage to a spacecraft.

Over 12,500 pieces of debris are currently orbiting Earth.

NASA notified the crew of the latest threat on Tuesday morning, a few hours after the risk was identified.

NASA spokesman Josh Byerly said in a statement that the orbit of the space junk is erratic, and there is quite a bit of atmospheric drag on it.

If the risk level remains red, NASA said that the astronauts would have to remove ventilation lines running from the space station’s major modules, seal the hatches to the rooms, and switch the radio channels so they can remain in contact with flight control teams in Houston and Moscow.

The crew would need to float into the Soyuz capsule about 10 minutes in advance of the time of closest approach and remain inside for at least 15 minutes afterward.

A station crew took refuge in a Soyuz in 2009 due to space junk flying close to the ISS. 

A three-person crew is en route to arrive at the 220-mile-high outpost on Wednesday.

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