Space junk narrowly misses station
A piece of debris travelling thousands of miles an hour narrowly missed the International Space Station on Tuesday in a harrowing incident that forced the crew to scramble to their rescue craft.
Russian space officials told news agencies the piece of space junk whizzed past only 250 meters (820) from the 13-year-old orbiter -- a microscopic distance in space terms.
The Russian space agency separately issued a terse statement noting that "a situation occurred" involving "an object of unknown origin".
"After the object passed, the crew was allowed to return to their regular working schedule," said the statement.
Space analysts warned that incidents of this kind were growing disturbingly more common as the amount of waste -- from nuts and bolts to rocket parts -- multiplied from basic wear and tear and controversial military testing.
"The ISS has had to actually maneuver out of the way on 10 or 12 occasions," said Moscow's Space News magazine editor Igor Marinin.
"The ISS has never been hit by debris," Marinin added.
But its Russian predecessor Mir "was hit pretty often. Those would leave gashes in the windows up to two centimetres (nearly an inch) thick and tear through the solar batteries."
The ISS is currently manned by three Russians and two Americans as well as a Japanese astronaut.
"Incidents involving so-called 'space junk' are not one of a kind. They have happened before," the Russian space agency statement added.
One of the most well-documented cases occurred in March 2009 when the ISS had a near miss with two US astronauts and a Russian on board.
The incident came at a sensitive time for the $100 billion project because it was being hampered by yet another on-board problem that needed an emergency fix.
One of its external tanks was leaking hydrogen and a US shuttle had to be ferried in with more crew and supplies -- a mission that had to be inconveniently delayed because of the space junk scare.
Scientists estimate that there are more than 300,000 junk fragments in space of up to 10 centimetres (four inches) long and a billion more that are smaller.
About 18,000 of these are believed to be very dangerous for the US shuttle and other space missions because they travel at tens of thousands of miles an hour.
Russia is also vocally critical of tests being conducted by nations like China, in which outdated satellites are blasted by new missile systems -- creating spectacular explosions that make a profound impact on outer space.
Analysts said officials from all nations involved in space were taking extra precautions to make sure that the orbit being taken up by the ISS remained clean.
"The orbit used by the ISS is no longer being littered," said Marinin of the Space News magazine.
"The incidents we might see in the future could be extreme but they will not be fatal."
The first module of the 16-nation ISS programme was launched by Russia in 1998.
The craft orbits 350 kilometres (220 miles) from Earth and sometimes maneuvers up or down when dangerous incoming particles are detected in time.
An emergency rescue system worked out by the Russians is extremely simple: the crew simply hop into the vessel in which they flew up from Earth and return home.
© 2011 AFP