Russian space debris forces space station to evade, delays spacewalk
NASA last-minute postponed a planned spacewalk to go beyond the International Space Station on Wednesday after a large chunk of Russian space debris came dangerously close to the space outpost.
NASA astronauts Frank Rubio and Josh Cassada got ready to step out of NASA’s US-built Quest airlock International Space Station Wednesday (Dec. 21) to install new solar panels when their Mission Control team ordered them to halt work. Instead, the space station will perform an emergency maneuver to get away from a large chunk space debris which is on track to get dangerously close to the lab later in the day. The spacewalk was eventually moved to Thursday, December 22.
The debris in question is a piece of a Russian missile, the 11-foot-wide (3.35 meters) Fregat upper stage used on Soyuz and Zenith launchers. The debris was expected to come within less than a quarter mile (0.4 kilometers) of the station later today, triggering a “red” upper-level alert, Dan Huot, NASA spokesman with Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston , said during live commentary.
“This is a piece of debris that has been tracked for the past few days and the tracking data has always been in our green or yellow range, which doesn’t require maneuvering,” Huot said. “But this morning it went to red and once we’re in the red we need to take action, whether it’s a debris maneuver or some other precautionary measure to keep the crew safe.”
The decision to cancel the spacewalk was made around 5 a.m. EST (1000 GMT), Huot added. The ground control team is now preparing to bring the station to safety using thrusters aboard the Russian Progress cargo spacecraft currently docked at the Russian part of the station. The maneuver is expected to take place at 8:42 a.m. EST (1342 GMT).
Huot said the space station is not at risk from the debris, which is expected to come closest to the space lab at 11:17 a.m. EST (1617 GMT).
NASA is looking for a new slot for the necessary spacewalk, which may take place later this week.
“The crew will have to reschedule their schedule for today so they don’t expect a spacewalk today,” Huot said. “The crew is in no danger. This isn’t the first time we’ve done this and it won’t be the last. This is pretty much part of the reality of operating in low Earth orbit.”
The incident comes about a week after a significant one coolant leak from the Russian Soyuz crew capsule, which brought NASA’s Frank Rubio and Russian cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitry Petelin to the space station in September. The leak, which may have made the capsule unsafe to fly astronauts home, was attributed by experts to a piece of space debris or a meteorite, though a formal investigation is still underway.
If the concerns are confirmed, the space station could be out for the first time in its history without the ability to bring the entire crew home safely in the event of a serious incident on board.
“Never a dull day aboard the International Space Station,” said Huot.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 4 p.m. EST to note that NASA has moved the spacewalk to Thursday, December 22. watch the spacewalk live online, courtesy of NASA TV, starting at 7 a.m. EST (1200 GMT). The spacewalk begins at 8:30 a.m. EST (1330 GMT).
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