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
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