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Space scientists’ ongoing cautionary call-outs over the dangers of space junk always seem like theoretical worrying… until, suddenly, they don’t. On Monday, NASA mission controllers on the ground issued a warning to the seven astronauts currently aboard the International Space Station to get in their docking capsules and stay put, thanks to the potential collision danger from a large debris cloud reportedly created by Russia’s in-orbit test destruction of a retired satellite.
The warnings sent both American and Russian astronauts stationed on the ISS to one of the two capsules currently docked there, according to NBC News. American astronauts Tom Marshburn, Raja Chari, and Kayla Barron (as well as ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer) took shelter in the crew Dragon capsule Endurance, while Russian cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov, joined by NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei, headed to Russia’s Soyuz capsule.
The incident stemmed from Russia’s intentional destruction, via an anti-satellite missile (ASAT), of one of its own decommissioned satellites as part of an “anti-satellite weapon test,” CBS News reports. A U.S. State Department spokesman quoted in that report said the blast had “generated over 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris and hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller orbital debris that now threaten the interests of all nations.”
Retreating to the relative safety of the docking capsules reportedly was part of the ISS’ “safe haven procedure,” compelling the ISS crew to close off the hatches separating the U.S. and Russian segments of the station, as well as sealing the modules “extending radially from the lab's long axis,” according to CBS News. The emergency measures appear to have gone off smoothly: U.S. Astronaut Hei described the unexpected scramble as “a crazy but well-coordinated day” in a reported followup briefing with Houston-based flight control.
Disposing of space junk isn’t uncommon in near-Earth orbit, though spacefaring nations typically coordinate to ensure the resulting debris will either burn up in Earth’s atmosphere or float at an orbital altitude that poses no dangers to active satellites and crewed space vessels. In March, the ISS itself ejected a three-ton chunk of space trash — though it eventually fell harmlessly into the Earth’s atmosphere and burned.
Even though the astronauts were eventually cleared to return to the ISS Monday, the U.S. says the large debris field created by the satellite blast will continue to pose a long-term obstacle to the orbiting lab’s safety. The State Department (via CBS) described Russia’s decision to destroy the satellite as “dangerous and irresponsible,” and said the resulting debris “jeopardizes the long term sustainability of outer space.”