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Space station under threat from orbital debris tonight
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: November 6, 2009
Updated @ 3 p.m. EST
Updated @ 6:45 p.m. EST


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The six-member crew of the International Space Station was told to get a few hours sleep Friday while flight controllers continued to assess the trajectory of a piece of space debris that was expected to pass close by the lab complex at 10:48 p.m. EST.


File photo of a Soyuz spacecraft at the space station. Credit: NASA
 
The crew was told to be prepared to take refuge aboard the lab's two three-seat Soyuz lifeboats if the analysis indicated a clear threat. But late Friday, flight controllers gave the crew a more upbeat report, saying "the news is getting better."

"We've had two more sites that have tracked the object and they're indicating it is not a valid threat," Ricky Arnold told the crew from mission control in Houston shortly before 5:30 p.m.

"Though due to the uncertainty, we'd like to take the opportunity to get more data in about an hour, we've got another pass that we'll get a look at it. We'd like to have you guys go to bed and we'll wake you a 0300 (GMT; 10 p.m. EST) as planned, even if it's just to tell you to go back to sleep. We don't know when the analysis is going to get in."

"OK, that sounds good," replied station commander Frank De Winne, a European Space Agency astronaut. "So we'll wake up at 0300 and we'll get further words at that moment if we will proceed to our Soyuzes and closing the hatches, or if you want us to just go back to sleep."

"That's a great plan and we thank you guys for the late night and all your hard work," Arnold said. "Hopefully we'll be waking you up here in a few hours with some good news."

Earlier Friday, NASA flight controllers predicted the debris, of unknown origin, could pass within about six-tenths of a mile of the lab complex toward the end of the crew's normal sleep period. Because all objects in low-Earth orbit, including the space station, are moving at roughly five miles per second, close encounters, or "conjunctions," are carefully monitored and subjected to extensive analysis.

During the evening planning conference Friday afternoon, the astronauts were told to plan on getting up early so they can make their way to the Soyuz lifeboats by around 10:30 p.m.

"The ballistics are saying they are looking at conjunction with space debris," Russian mission control radioed. "As you know, this is something we are prepared for. In the past, we have performed avoidance maneuvers, but this time maneuvering away from the path of the debris is not an option.

"Because we cannot perform avoidance maneuver, you will have to ingress Soyuz vehicles. Both Soyuz crews should be in their vehicles. This is what we have. We are going to work on the ballistics data to get greater precision, but right now we are in the red box. The probability of collision is non zero."

NASA flight controllers told the astronauts the tracking data was uncertain and that engineers did not yet have confidence in the trajectory projections. Pending additional analysis later in the afternoon, the crew was told to play it safe and plan on boarding the Soyuz lifeboats after shutting internal hatches in the U.S. segment of the lab complex.

The Soyuz sheltering plan called for cosmonaut Roman Romanenko, Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk and De Winne to make their way to the Soyuz TMA-15 spacecraft docked to the Earth-facing port of the Zarya module. Cosmonaut Maxim Suraev and NASA astronauts Jeffrey Williams and Nicole Stott would seek safe haven in the Soyuz TMA-17 spacecraft docked to the aft port of the Zvezda command module.

"Unfortunately, the particular object is not easy to track, it's not visible by all the different tracking stations every time, and so there's not a lot of confidence in the data on the exact location of this piece of debris," NASA spokesman Kelly Humphries said earlier Friday.

Last March, the station's three-man crew - Mike Fincke, Yury Lonchakov and Sandra Magnus - faced a similar situation and briefly took refuge in the lab's single Soyuz lifeboat when another piece of debris from an old rocket motor made a close approach.

There are more than 18,000 pieces of space junk in low-Earth orbit the size of a baseball and larger. U.S. Strategic Command prioritizes radar tracking to protect manned spacecraft first, followed by high-priority military and civilian payloads.

NASA monitors an imaginary volume around the space station roughly the shape of a pizza box measuring 0.466 miles thick and 15.5 miles square.

"Initially, we have a screening box, which is .75 kilometers radial miss, which would be up or down, by 25 kilometers in cross track, which would be left or right, by 25 kilometers down track, which is either in front or behind us," space station Flight Director Ron Spencer said in September.

"Space Command will alert us of any debris objects out there that are going to get that close to us. Then they increase tasking on those objects to try to get a better solution and decrease the uncertainty. Then we calculate a probability of collision based on the data Space Command gives us."

Spencer said NASA has two levels of concern.

"We have two thresholds, yellow and red," he wrote in an email exchange. "The yellow is 1-in-100,000 and the red is 1-in-10,000. We will not take any action if it is below the yellow threshold. If it between the yellow and red, we will only take action if it is easy to do so without impacting the mission. For a red threshold violation we will take action in most cases."

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