The Associated Press: Space station crew has close call with space junk

By | March 12, 2009

The Associated Press Space station crew has close call with space junk

In this image provided by NASA, the Russian segment of the international space station is featured in this image photographed by an Expedition 18 crewmember during a spacewalk Tuesday March 10, 2009. The crew of the international space station survived a close call with space junk Thursday, March 12, 2009. The three crew members took refuge for 11 minutes in the Soyuz escape capsule and then were told to go back into the space station.

The crew of the international space station had a close call with space junk Thursday. The three astronauts briefly took refuge inside a Russian escape capsule before returning inside the space station. Officials were worried that the orbiting outpost might get hit with a small piece of passing space debris. Tiny pieces of debris could cause a fatal loss of air pressure in the station.

“We’ve cleared,” station commander Mike Fincke radioed to Mission Control in Houston as he prepared to go back inside after an 11-minute stay in the capsule.

The debris, part of a mechanism to put a satellite in proper orbit, measured about 5 inches, a size that “will wreck your whole day,” said Mark Matney, an orbit debris scientist for NASA.

“We were watching it with bated breath,” Matney told The Associated Press. “We didn’t know what was going to happen.”

Matney, who’s been with NASA since 1992, said it was the closest call he can remember.

NASA usually tries to move the space station out of the way of space junk, but they got this warning Wednesday night when it was too late to move the station, NASA spokesman Kyle Herring said. Instead, NASA sent the crew to the Soyuz capsule.

A Soyuz capsule is parked at the space station to serve as a lifeboat if needed for the station’s residents. The capsule has been used for shelter at least five times in the past, said NASA spokesman Josh Byerly. There was a scare last September, but at the last moment NASA called off using Soyuz because new calculations showed much lower risk.

Thursday’s debris was expected to come within the 2.8 mile box of space around the station that makes up NASA’s danger zone, Herring said.

“We were looking out the Soyuz window,” Fincke radioed to Houston. “We didn’t see anything of course. We were wondering how close we were.”

Because the U.S. Strategic Command, which monitors space debris, could not get a good enough look at the debris, NASA may never know exactly how close it came, said Byerly. It was traveling 5.5 miles per second — about 20,000 mph, he said.

via The Associated Press: Space station crew has close call with space junk.

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