The International Space Station (ISS) had to be ‘pushed’ out of the way of space debris earlier this week to prevent a potential impact.
The piece of debris was thought to be a remnant of a Chinese spy satellite and may have been a lens cap or a cover.
The ‘push’ was performed by Europe’s ATV-5 cargo ship and pushed the ISS about one mile (1.6km) higher.
The debris was due to come within seven-tenths of a mile to the station, which Nasa mission controllers in Texas felt was too close for comfort.
To move the station they fired the thrusters on the ATV-5 (Automated Transfer Vehicle).
This increased the speed of the station ever so slightly and raised it into a higher orbit, out of the orbital path of the debris.
Moving the station – known as a Pre-determined Debris Avoidance Manouevre (PDAM) – is not entirely uncommon.
There are hundreds of thousands of pieces of debris in orbit around Earth at pose a threat to the station.
Most of this comes from a Chinese anti-satellite missile test in 2007, when the country blew up one of its weather satellites on purpose.
The incident was widely criticised and has resulted in a dangerous amount of debris orbiting Earth.
Another infamous debris incident occurred when the American Iridium 33 satellite accidentally collided with the Russian Kosmos-2251 in 2009.
This too released a large amount of debris into Earth orbit.
There are a number of organisations that track junk that is orbiting Earth. If the chance of a piece hitting the station is one in 100,000, Nasa issues a ‘yellow warning’.
This means the station needs to be moved, as happened recently, unless the move could affect the mission.
If the chance of a collision is one in 10,000 Nasa issues a ‘red warning’, which means the station must be moved regardless of whether it could hamper the mission.
And in very rare circumstances when a collision seems likely, the crew must prepare for an emergency evacuation.
In March 2009 such an incident occurred, and the three astronauts on the station had to take cover in one of the Soyuz modules, which act as ‘lifeboats’.
Had the station been hit, they would have had to detach and return to Earth.
However the latest boost had an added bonus, as a pre-planned boost scheduled for a few weeks from now no longer needs to be completed.
‘The PDAM was completed nominally, and the ISS is back in a nominal Torque Equilibrium Attitude (TEA),” said an ISS status update.
‘Since the PDAM was executed , the reboost that was planned for later is no longer required, and will not be performed.’
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