Never has the danger of the man-made debris floating around in Space been more apparent than on Saturday March 24th, when the six residents of the International Space Station (ISS) were forced to take refuge from a piece, that was heading their way.
The crew comprising of three Russians, two Americans and a Dutch astronaut, were ordered by NASA to seek temporary refuge inside the two Soyuz escape spacecraft capsules and be ready to leave if necessary, as a piece from an abandoned Russian satellite rapidly made its way towards the Station.
Had the NASA ground scientists spotted it earlier, they would have tried to maneuver it to a higher orbit and away from the ISS. However, by the time they saw it hurtling, it was too late and they had no option but to ask the astronauts to evacuate.
Fortunately, it missed the ISS by nine miles and while that may seem like a long distance on Earth, it is considered minuscule in Space where the station and the debris are both traveling at 17,500 miles an hour. This is the third time the astronauts have had to evacuate the ISS in the last 12 years. The scariest incident occurred in June 2011, when a piece of debris came within 360 yards of the Station.
Though NASA is actively monitoring about 22,000 large pieces of debris, there are millions of smaller ones floating around in Space. While they are the result of many years of space exploration, the single biggest incident of space pollution occurred in 2007, when China launched a missile to destroy one of its own satellites. The explosion resulted in generating more than 3,000 large trackable objects and over 150,000 smaller debris particles!
The Russian built Soyuz capsules were responsible for transporting the first residents to the International Space Station in 2000. Since then, there are always one or two capsules docked at the Station, in case the astronauts need to return to Earth in an emergency. Each capsule can accommodate three astronauts and bring them back to earth, in about 3.5 hours.
Resources: NASA.gov, Telegraph.co.uk