International Space Station swerves to avoid Russian space debris, NASA says

By Jackie Wattles and Katie Hunt, CNN

The International Space Station fired its thrusters to maneuver out of the way of a piece of oncoming Russian space junk, NASA said late Monday.

The space agency said in a news release that the ISS conducted a five minute, five second burn to avoid a fragment of Russia’s Cosmos 1408 satellite, which the country destroyed in a weapons test in November last year.

Officials at NASA have previously warned about the risks of the proliferation of debris in space, caused by a dramatic increase in the number of satellites in orbit and several instances of governments intentionally destroying satellites and creating new plumes of junk.

The space station conducted a “Pre-Determined Debris Avoidance Maneuver,” or PDAM, to give the ISS “an extra measure of distance away from the predicted track of a fragment of Russian Cosmos 1408 debris,” the space agency said.

“The thruster firing occurred at 8:25 p.m. EDT and the maneuver had no impact on station operations. Without the maneuver, it was predicted that the fragment could have passed within about three miles from the station.”

The burn raised the space station’s altitude by 2/10 of a mile, according to the space agency.

On November 15, 2021, Cosmos 1408, a no longer operational satellite, was destroyed, generating a cloud of debris including some 1,500 pieces of trackable space debris.

US Space Command said Russia tested a direct-ascent anti-satellite, or DA-ASAT missile and strongly condemned the anti-satellite test, calling it “a reckless and dangerous act” and saying that it “won’t tolerate” behavior that puts international interests at risk.

The ISS was forced to make a similar maneuver in June to avoid debris created by the anti-satellite test. In January, a piece of debris created by that test came within striking distance of a Chinese satellite, in an encounter the Chinese government called “extremely dangerous.”

The ISS typically has to shift its orbit to avoid space junk around once a year, maneuvering away from the object if the chance of a collision exceeds one in 10,000, according to NASA.

Invisible in the night sky, there are hundreds of millions of debris objects orbiting our planet. This debris is composed of parts of old satellites as well as entire defunct satellites and rocket bodies.

According to a 2021 report by NASA, at least 26,000 of the pieces of space junk orbiting the Earth are the size of a softball or larger – big enough to wreck a satellite; more than 500,000 pieces of debris are marble-sized – capable of damaging spacecraft; while “over 100 million pieces are the size of a grain of salt that could puncture a spacesuit.”

As these fragments knock into each other, they can create yet more pieces of smaller orbital debris.

Russia said earlier this year it is planning to pull out of the International Space Station and end its decades-long partnership with NASA at the orbiting outpost, which is due to be retired by 2031.

Ross Levitt contributed to this report.

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