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Space Station Has Close Call With Space Junk
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Space Station Has Close Call With Space Junk

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Space Station Has Close Call With Space Junk

Space Station Has Close Call With Space Junk
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A tiny bit of space junk just a third of an inch wide had the crew of the International Space Station scrambling for safety Thursday, as experts continue to debate what can be done about all the trash that's orbiting our planet.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Yesterday, two American astronauts and a Russian cosmonaut onboard the International Space Station had to briefly take shelter in an escape capsule. The danger they faced was a small piece of orbiting space junk. NASA was worried that it might smash into the station. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce has more.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: The Earth is surrounded by space junk. Stuff like dead satellites, rocket parts, bits of paint. It's all whizzing around the planet at incredible speeds, like super fast bullets. If junk collides with a spacecraft it can cause real damage. Brian Weeden is an expert on space debris with the Secure World Foundation.

Mr. BRIAN WEEDEN (Secure World Foundation): Say you were sitting in the space station looking out the window. By and large you would not be able to see objects that were on a collision path.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says the objects are just moving too fast and coming from too far away.

Mr. WEEDEN: Their closing speed is almost more than really humans can kind of detect, especially for the ones that are really a threat for collision.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But the military routinely tracts pieces of space junk that are bigger than a baseball. There's about 18,000 of them. Late Wednesday, NASA got word that something was soon going to come within three miles of the station. NASA says it was part of a spent rocket motor, about five inches across, traveling at a speed of roughly 20,000 miles per hour.

Kelly Humphries is a NASA spokesperson. He says normally they'd just move the $100 billion station to get it out of the way.

Mr. KELLY HUMPHRIES (Spokesperson, NASA): Because we got the notice so late we didn't have time to coordinate one of those maneuvers.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So the next morning the crew was told to get ready. The astronauts closed hatches between rooms on the station, in case one was hit and lots air pressure. Then the crew went to the Soyuz spacecraft. That's a Russian capsule that's docked to the station. It's a kind of lifeboat.

Mr. HUMPHRIES: Asking the crew to seek shelter in a Soyuz is pretty rare.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Humphries says the crew sat inside the escape capsule for about 10 minutes and waited for the piece of debris to pass safely by.

Mr. HUMPHRIES: We don't know, and probably will never know, how closely the debris actually came.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Humphries says the bit of junk was not related to a dramatic crash in space that occurred last month. A large communication satellite collided with a defunct Russian one, spewing out a large new cloud of debris. But these recent incidents have put a spotlight on the growing problem of space junk.

Mr. BILL AILOR (Director, Center for Orbital and Reentry Studies): I think the more visibility you get to a problem like this the better.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Bill Ailor is director of the Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies at the Aerospace Corporation. He says people have proposed various ways to clean up the junk, but there's so much of it and it covers such a large amount of space that any cleaning effort would be technically difficult and also expensive.

Mr. AILOR: It's difficult to put objects into space, and similarly, it would be difficult to bring individual objects down.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says most experts think the best thing to do is just to avoid, as much as possible, putting any more litter up there.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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Space Station Crew In Near Miss With Space Junk

The crew of the international space station survived a close call with space junk Thursday.

The three crew members took refuge for 11 minutes in the Soyuz escape capsule and then were told to go back into the space station. Officials were worried about a possible collision with a small piece of an old spacecraft motor.

The debris was about one-third of an inch in width, said NASA spokesman Josh Byerly. It passed within three miles of the space station.

The drama began unfolding with a statement on the NASA Web site expressing concerns about a "minimal" chance that the space station could be hit by debris.

The astronauts aboard the orbiting platform — two Americans and one Russian — retreated to the relative safety of the Soyuz TMA-13 space capsule as a precautionary measure, NASA says.

"Crew members are taking precautionary measures due to space debris that has been determined to be within the range where a collision is possible," the NASA Web site said. "News of the close approach came too late for flight controllers to coordinate an avoidance maneuver."

Once inside the capsule, crew members would have been able to quickly leave the station if necessary.

The chief fear was that debris hitting the station could cause a fatal loss of air pressure inside the station.

With reporting from The Associated Press.

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