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Sat, Aug 30, 2008

Report: ISS Changes Orbit To Avoid Russian Debris

But Officially... That Space Trash Doesn't Exist

Crewmembers onboard the International Space Station had to take the unusual step this week of firing booster rockets to lower the station's orbit, in order to avoid a chunk of space debris that may have come within a mile of the orbital platform.

MSNBC reports the firing is the first time in five years the ISS had to be maneuvered to avoid such debris. The station's Expedition 17 crew fired thrusters on the attached European Space Agency's Automated Transfer Vehicle (shown at bottom) for about five minutes, in a move termed a "debris avoidance maneuver."

Such firings aren't uncommon... but are usually used to lift the station's low-Earth orbit, to reduce drag on the station from the fringes of Earth's atmosphere. That drag lowers the station's altitude by between 100-300 feet per day.

However, this time around the station was already near the top of its allowable altitude... so crews were forced to fire the ATV's rockets to lower the station's orbit, a wasteful though necessary move.

The debris behind the move is remnants from the Russian Cosmos-2421 surveillance satellite, launched in June 2006 to keep track of Western naval vessels. The satellite exploded on March 14 of this year, likely due to a self-destruct command issued by Russian officials. The satellite broke apart further on April 28, and once again on June 9.

Western officials note the satellite's explosion -- and the destruction of other, similar satellites -- came while it was within range of Russian tracking stations. However, Russia has continually denied the satellite exploded.

In May, a spokesman for the Russian Space Force termed Western claims of the satellite's destruction as "unverified media reports."Two months later, Vitaly Davydov -- deputy chief of the Russian space agency -- told Interfax he saw "no evidence for media reports that claimed, citing NASA, that a Russian military satellite had exploded in orbit and that its fragments threatened the international space station.

"For some reason, questions of this kind didn't arise in the years when this was happening. ... These days there are such questions all of a sudden," Davydov added. "Our interpretation is very simple: there is certain interest in vehicles of this class that are used in the interests of our Defense Ministry."

NASA responds it's not in the business of dodging phantoms... and notes there's clear evidence contrary to Russian claims, in the form of over 500 pieces of trackable space debris. Those objects have given the ISS crew "fits" for the past month, in the words of one unnamed NASA analyst, as the station flies through the debris cloud.

Russian news reports this week said Wednesday's maneuver was necessary to dodge "pieces of space debris" of unspecified origin. Even ESA apparently bowed to Russian pressure, saying the debris came "from an old satellite."

NASA says the station has now passed through the worst of the debris field... but there's a chance more maneuvers could be necessary.

FMI: www.nasa.gov

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