In Rare Move, Space Station Fires Thrusters To Dodge Debris From 2007 Chinese Weapons Test

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by Tyler Durden
Thursday, Nov 11, 2021 - 11:20 PM

Low Earth orbit (LEO) is cluttered with space junk that has been steadily increasing over the years. The problem is so severe that the International Space Station (ISS) had to power up its thrusters to dodge a piece of Chinese space debris on Wednesday.

NYT reports the ISS dodged "35114" in NASA's list of space junk, also identified as 1999-025DKS, a piece of debris from a Chinese weather satellite that was blown up in LEO via a ballistic missile test in 2007. The in-orbit explosion caused over 3,000 pieces of debris. 

NASA and Russia's space agency in Moscow worked together to fire up ISS' thrusters that raised ISS about a mile in altitude to avoid 35114. 

"It just makes sense to go ahead and do this burn and put this behind us so we can ensure the safety of the crew," Joel Montalbano, NASA's ISS manager, told reporters on Tuesday ahead of the maneuver.

Since the inception of the space station in the late 1990s, there have only been 29 such avoidance maneuvers. 

Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at Harvard who tracks space junk, tweeted Wednesday that thrusters were fired around "2015 UTC to adjust the Space Station's orbit and make sure it doesn't get hit by debris object 35114." 

ISS' debris-dodging maneuver didn't impact Thursday's docking of the Crew Dragon capsule with the station. 

Not all objects can be dodged. On May 12, a small, untrackable piece of space junk ripped through a robotic arm on the station. It caused no damage but underlined the space junk problem. 

Space agencies track around 30,000 pieces of space debris in LEO. As the technology to launch satellites and humans into space becomes cheaper and more accessible, more junk gathers in LEO. 

"The biggest contributor to the current space debris problem is explosions in orbit, caused by left-over energy—fuel and batteries—onboard spacecraft and rockets. Despite measures being in place for years to prevent this, we see no decline in the number of such events. Trends towards end-of-mission disposal are improving, but at a slow pace," European Space Agency recently said.