Three astronauts working aboard the International Space Station (ISS) were nearly struck Thursday by what NASA is calling a “close pass” by flying Russian space junk.
The three men took temporary shelter in a Russian-made Soyuz spacecraft that was attached to the orbiting ISS as the broken part of an aged Russian weather satellite coasted by at 8:01 a.m. (1201 GMT), the U.S. space agency said. The Soyuz is the capsule that carries astronauts to and from the ISS.
According to Roscosmos, the Russian federal space agency, the three astronauts remained in the Soyuz for about 10 minutes.
“The crew of the International Space Station is resuming normal operations after getting an all-clear from Mission Control following a close pass by space debris this morning,” NASA confirmed in a statement. “All station systems are operating normally and the crew will move out of the Soyuz spacecraft in which they stayed during the debris pass.”
The current ISS crew consists of American astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonauts Gennady Padalka and Mikhail Kornienko.
Mr. Kelly was warned by NASA of the fast-approaching space debris at 1029 GMT, about an hour and a half before the debris’ closest approach. News of the approaching space junk led to the implementation of Flight Rule B4-101, which sent the crew to take “safe haven” in the docked Russian Soyuz vehicle.
“The data on the possible close pass was received too late and was not sufficiently precise enough for the station to take any evasive maneuver,” NASA spokesman James Hartsfield reportedly told The Associated Press in an email.
“In those cases, the crew can be called to put the station in a safe configuration and move to the Soyuz until the debris has passed.”
Mr. Hartsfield added there was no impact or damage to the ISS and that all systems were operating as normal. The odds of space junk hitting the ISS are low, but if there is a collision, the debris can puncture the station’s modules.
“The ISS has the safety blanket of Space Command/NORAD, which tracks relatively large pieces of debris — usually originating from expended satellite and rocket hardware. Usually, this allows for the Station to receive a heads up and conduct a Pre-Determined Debris Avoidance Maneuver (PDAM) to move the orbital outpost into a different path and thus avoid a potential collision,” reported NASA Space Flight, a popular online news resource that covers space faring nations.
But some threats — known as Red Late Conjunctions — are spotted late, and there is no time to conduct a PDAM.
During the agency’s live television broadcast, another NASA spokesman said the astronaut’s shelter-in-place maneuver was a move the crew trains for regularly, comparing it to a fire drill.
NASA said Thursday’s incident was the fourth time in the 15-year history of the space station that astronauts moved briefly into a Soyuz to avoid passing space junk.
Earlier, the Russian Interfax news agency quoted a source in the space industry as saying the space debris was a speck of the Soviet meteorological satellite, Meteor-2, which was launched from the Archangel Oblast based Plesetsk 41 cosmodrome in 1979.