Update: It looks like the International Space Station astronauts are safe, and that NASA’s declared the six-inch piece of space junk a non-threat, reports the Associated Press. Our original story follows:
It’s a piece of space debris from a destroyed Chinese weather satellite and it’s due to fly dangerously close to NASA’s International Space Station at 4:21p.m. EDT today. So close, in fact, that the station’s crew will take shelter in an adjoining Russian spacecraft as a safety precaution.
The chunk of space junk, split from a satellite intentionally blown up during a 2007 Chinese anti-satellite weapons test, will at its closest point zip past the ISS inside of 2.7 miles, a NASA spokesperson told SPACE.com. That’s spitting distance in space terms, thus the issuance of a “red threat level,” NASA’s highest alert stage.
Normally NASA would just move the ISS out of the way, give or take a 15 mile perimeter, but the Chinese satellite fragment was discovered too late, forcing more dramatic measures–like taking cover in an escape shuttle.
Blame China? NASA does (well, kind of). According to the space agency, when the weather satellite was pulverized, it created “a vast cloud of orbital debris.” Not exactly a manned-orbital-object friendly move. That, and a 2006 estimate put the number of space objects at upwards of 19,000. Make that 19,000 plus whatever the 2007 incident added.
Onboard the ISS are NASA astronaut Cady Colman, Russian cosmonaut and mission commander Dmitry Kondratyev, and Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli. All three will shelter in the Russian Soyuz TMA-20–which doubles as a lifeboat–as the debris passes by. If things go poorly, the crew would have to cut ventilation lines and seal off rooms on the station–even evacuate should a catastrophic event occur.
Also happening: The near-arrival of a second Russian spacecraft, en route to the ISS and due to arrive Wednesday evening if all else goes well.