- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 12, 2009

WASHINGTON — 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 moved them into the capsule because they were worried that the orbiting outpost might get hit with a small piece of passing space debris.

“We’ve cleared,” station commander Mike Fincke radioed to Mission Control in Houston as he prepared to go back inside.

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The debris measured about a third of an inch, part of a motor that helped boost a satellite into the proper orbit, said NASA spokesman Kyle Herring. Tiny pieces of debris could cause a fatal loss of air pressure in the station.

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, Herring said.

Instead, NASA sent the crew to the Soyuz capsule, a move that has been done in the past, Herring said. A Soyuz capsule is parked at the space station to serve as a lifeboat if needed for the station’s residents.

The piece of 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 NASA spokesman Josh Byerly. It was traveling 5.5 miles per second — about 20,000 mph, according to Byerly.

The debris is likely a tiny weight followed by a 39-inch string or strand that was used to stabilize a global positioning satellite placed in orbit in May 1993, said Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, who tracks all objects in orbit.

One of the reasons NASA got such late warning on the debris is that it is an unusual orbit that keeps dipping into the atmosphere and changing, McDowell said. The GPS satellite went out of daily use in January, he said.

Fincke is one of two Americans living aboard the space station; the third resident is Russian.

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