ISS Crew May Be Forced to Take Shelter from Space Debris

Article written: 23 Nov , 2011
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015
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Nov. 23 update: NASA reports that flight controllers have downgraded conjunction threat, and there is now no need for the crew to shelter in place on the space station.

What a fine welcome for the new crew on board the ISS: The three astronauts/cosmonauts on the space station may have to take shelter in their Soyuz spacecraft early Wednesday morning (Nov. 23), due to a close flyby or even a possible collision with a piece of space debris. Mission Control called up to the Expedition 30 at 2:06 pm EST today (Nov. 22), saying it was too late to do a debris avoidance maneuver with the entire station, and the crew should be ready to “shelter in place” in the Soyuz vehicle.

Reports are that the object is a piece of debris about 4 inches (10 centimeters) in diameter from the Chinese Fengyun 1C weather satellite that was destroyed in 2007. Current tracking indicates the object may come within 850 meters (2,800 feet) of the station.

An approach of debris is considered close only when it enters an imaginary “pizza box” shaped region around the station, measuring 0.75 kilometers above and below the station and 25 kilometers on each side (2,460 feet above and below and 15.6 by 15.6 miles). The undocking of the Expedition 29 crew yesterday altered the orbit of the ISS enough so that this object –which had previously not been a threat – is now on its way for a very close pass with the station.

Commander Dan Burbank and Flight Engineers Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin will awake early and confer with Mission Control on the latest tracking data of the object, and decide by 4:30 a.m. EST (0930 UTC) on Nov. 23 if they should take shelter in the Soyuz.

NASA’s Chief Scientist for Orbital Debris Nicholas Johnson told Universe Today during a previous close conjunction of space debris and the ISS that on average, close approaches to ISS occur about three times a month.

Johnson said that small pieces of debris have already collided with ISS on many occasions, but these debris to date have not affected the safety of the crew or the operation of the mission. “The dedicated debris shields on ISS can withstand particles as large as 1 cm in diameter,” he said.

The crew has taken shelter in the Soyuz vehicles only twice during the 11 years of continual human presence on the ISS.

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11 Responses

  1. Robert Gishubl says

    Space junk is a growing problem and needs to be managed, just like we have street sweepers in our towns we need orbit sweepers to sweep up space junk. The first criteria is to reduce the cost of launching into space so it is affordable to send up an orbit sweeper to match orbits and capture the junk and either return it to earth or put it into a known orbit with early decay to burn up. This is a potential use for an X-37B type vehicle to manoeuvre and capture junk in a set orbital range then release the junk just before it re-enters. It could be re-used and inserted into different orbits to capture junk in those orbits but the problem at the moment is to cost of launch. Efforts by NASA to provide woven heat shields and SpaceX to make Falcon 9 re-usable could contribute to reducing launch costs to make this an affordable option. The first few missions will not be cheap but it would cost less than the destruction of ISS and other LEO satellites.

  2. Anonymous says

    We need to come together internationally and reach a consensus on eliminating another repeat of the Chinese satellite incident of 2007. Awareness of the problems this causes to the international community as a whole should be promoted at such a conference.

    We should leverage the same taboo that exists against slavery and nuclear arms testing and apply it to this type of unnecessary weapons use.

    The Chinese really irked me when they blew this satellite up. There was no justification for this act as the satellite posed no threat on reentry. It’s target was likely an American/Euro audience as an act of strategic deterrence. This, despite the fact that it was open common knowledge that China possessed the capacity to take down satellites.

    • Aerandir90 says

      Now now, let’s not forget that America did the same thing in 2008 (though for different reasons “officially”). Of course the media wouldn’t have sensationalized that as much as the Chinese demonstration.

      Nevertheless, I agree that there needs to be a clause in some treaty that bans that kind of direct military activity in space. Kind of vague but it can be worked on.

      • Anonymous says

        Now now yourself. Don’t you think the Russians and Chinese would have challenged the “official” reasons and outcome if there was the least hint of coverup? One of many of the many news clips… http://www.cnn.com/2008/TECH /space/02/20/satellite.shootdown/ remove the space after TECH after pasting the url

      • Aerandir90 says

        What? I didn’t say anything about a coverup. I meant to say that they had more motive than just safety. I’m pretty sure there are several people in US military command who would want to know if they had that kind of capability.

        Maybe I’m wrong, or maybe I’m not, but I feel that the chances of that hydrazine killing some people were really low.

        Regardless of all this, China’s contributions to space debris are probably not that significant compared to the American and Russian/Soviet counterparts.

        The article (UT) also said that the ISS has about 3 close approaches per month. This piece of news is only news because it happens to be a piece of Chinese debris.

      • Anonymous says

        “Regardless of all this, China’s contributions to space debris are probably not that significant compared to the American and Russian/Soviet counterparts. ”

        They’ve only just begun.

        “The article (UT) also said that the ISS has about 3 close approaches per month. This piece of news is only news because it happens to be a piece of Chinese debris. ”

        News not because it’s Chinese satellite debris but because the crew has to take shelter for this chunk. And IIRC most of the debris that comes close to the ISS is in fact the remnants of the destroyed Chinese satellite.

    • Tony Power says

      wouldnt it be possible to have a clause that anything bigger than a toaster that goes into space has a sepperate booster on it that can accelerate the object to either a higher orbit or better yet, escape velocity?

  3. Aerandir90 says

    Update:

    National Aeronautics and Space Administration – NASA
    NASA flight controllers downgraded conjunction threat. No need to shelter in place required on space station.

    Phew!

  4. Marcin says

    Why are they using Soyuz as a shelter? Is it better protected than the rest of the station?

    • Anonymous says

      Soyuz is very small compared to than the rest of the station so is much less likely to be hit directly. Also it’s a handy escape vehicle in case the station gets hit.

  5. Kev Girard says

    We’re in 2011… why weren’t they removed? Its not like we don’t have the technology. Go politicians, dump more money into war instead.

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