Astronauts’ alert over space missile

Astronauts on the International Space Station had to board their “lifeboat” today in a red alert over some incoming cosmic junk. NASA ordered the crew – two men and one woman – into a Russian Soyuz ship docked to the orbiting outpost in case the piece of debris struck.

International Space Station with Jules Verne attachedThey decided the incoming missile – part of a spent rocket motor – was a threat too late to move the space station out of its path. So the Soyuz was prepared to fly them to safety in the event of an impact.

The alarm was raised at 12.15pm EST when station commander Mike Fincke, flight engineer Yury Lonchkov and Sandra Magnus, orbiting 220 miles above the Earth, were told to get into the “lifeboat” within 20 minutes.

NASA called it a “RED threshold late notice conjunction threat”. Russian controllers told them to leave the hatch open but ready to be closed quickly if they needed to escape.

The chunk of junk, labelled 25090 PAM-D, was due to cross their path at 12.39pm EST – a few minutes later, the crew were told they could leave the Soyuz capsule and resume normal operations. A mission controller at Houston told them: “We’re all very happy the debris has passed with no impact. That’s great news.”

Last August, a European spacecraft Jules Verne docked to the space station had to fire its motors to move it clear of a piece of Russian satellite debris. The latest scare came just days before the shuttle Discovery is due to arrive with seven more astronauts.

A piece of crud can be lethal in space, because they orbit at several times the speed of a rifle bullet. Even a small piece can rip a hole in the skin of a spacecraft.

NASA are currently tracking more than 18,000 pieces of space debris larger than a tennis ball in low-Earth orbit. It is surprising that the alert came too late to use the space station’s thrusters to move it to a safer height.

Last month, the first ever collision between two giant satellites in orbit created extra clouds of debris, adding to the deadly perils facing future space explorers.

In September 2006, the shuttle Atlantis landed with a hole in its cargo doors blasted by a meteor or fragment of space junk. Other shuttles have had to have their windows replaced after they were damaged by speeding flakes of PAINT.

A TV and comms satellite, Express-AM11, was sent spinning out of control by a chunk of cosmic crud in March 2006 in a special orbit that is becoming the Piccadilly Circus of the space lanes.

In January 2007, China used a ballistic missile to destroy one of its own satellites in an orbit about 550 miles high. That “Star Wars” test, condemned by the West, created a cloud of countless pieces of debris.

A Russian booster rocket exploded over Australia in March 2007 adding around 1,100 chunks of rubbish. And around 300,000 fragments were left when the upper stage of a US Pegasus rocket blew up in 1996.

Picture: The ISS photographed from a shuttle last year, with the Jules Verne attached at bottom. (NASA).

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Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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