The six-member crew aboard the International Space Station took shelter in their Soyuz lifeboats Tuesday morning after NASA learned about a piece of orbital debris that was heading uncomfortably close to the outpost.
Typically, the space station will maneuver out of the way if any debris will pass within a predetermined safety zone, but there wasn’t time to orchestrate any moves Tuesday. Instead, NASA told the crew to head to the two Russian Soyuz capsules parked at the station.
About 20 minutes before the unidentified object was predicted to make its closest approach to the station, commander Andrey Borisenko, Alexander Samokutyaev and Ronald Garan climbed inside the Soyuz TMA-21 spacecraft docked to the Poisk module, and Sergei Volkov, Satoshi Furukawa and Michael Fossum headed toward the Soyuz TMA-02M docked to the Rassvet module.
It was only the second time in the 11 years that the station has been occupied that crews were told to seek shelter in their Soyuz lifeboats. The first incident was on March 12, 2009.
Space debris is a serious threat to operational spacecraft circling Earth due to the incredibly high speeds of objects in orbit. Even a small piece of junk moving at orbital velocity of 5 miles per second can pack a deadly wallop.
The piece of debris passed harmlessly by the station at a distance of about 250 meters (820 feet) at 8:08 a.m. EDT. NASA flight controllers learned of the threat about 6 p.m. Monday.
Image: The International Space Station, photographed by the shuttle Endeavour crew last month. Credit: NASA