The International Space Station is dodging space junk with a damaged “lifeboat” parked outside

The International Space Station as it appeared in November 2022.

A piece of Russian space junk approached the International Space Station early Wednesday, maneuvering to avoid debris. Routine stuff — except for the fact that three crew members would have to escape inside the potentially damaged Soyuz spacecraft if ISS evacuation was necessary.

Another day, another spacewalk is cancelled. This time, instead of the spacewalk being halted due to an alarming coolant leak on Soyuz MS-22 attached to the station, it was canceled due to an unwanted alien threat.

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Tracking data warned that the remnants of Russia’s Fregat-SB upper stage came within less than a quarter of a mile of the International Space Station, performing a debris-avoidance maneuver, NASA explained in a blog post. Ground controllers told the crew to stop spacewalk preparations and instead prepare for orbital adjustment. The maneuver occurred at 8:42 a.m. EDT today, firing thrusters from the docked Progress 81 spacecraft for 10 minutes and 21 seconds, sending the International Space Station farther away from the expected path of the debris, according to a NASA update.

The space agency said the crew is not in immediate danger and that a new date for the canceled spacewalk, in which astronauts Frank Rubio and Josh Cassada will continue to install their solar panels, is imminent. The crew may not have been in “any immediate danger”, but the accident was untimely.

Russian space agency Roscosmos is in the midst of determining whether Soyuz MS-22 is fit for flight after an external cooling loop leak in the vehicle’s service module on Dec. 15. Inspections revealed a 0.8-millimeter-wide hole possibly from a micrometeor or a small piece of space junk. Alternatively, the leak could be from a prefabricated radiator vent, as NASA predicted Monday.

For Rubio and cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitry Petlin, this spaceship is their ride home—but also a lifeboat in case of a serious emergency. Roscosmos expects to make a decision on the vehicle’s flight-worthiness by December 27. Tests over the weekend indicated that Soyuz’s thrusters are working properly, but some extreme temperature fluctuations inside the spacecraft’s cabin could be a cause for concern. The MS-22 could be considered fit for service, but in its absence, Roscosmos will send an uncrewed Soyuz aircraft as a replacement. The capsule was supposed to be launched in March as part of the MS-23 mission, but Roscosmos says it could speed up the flight and lift it up in mid-February.

This is still not cool. If an evacuation of the space station is deemed necessary (for whatever reason), Rubio, Prokopyev, and Petlin are expected to use the docked Soyuz MS-22 as their escape craft. On December 16, Russian ground controllers sent new instructions to the ISS regarding this particular emergency, namely that an “urgent descent” is required, as the state news agency TASS explained. The details of these new instructions are not known, but it likely consists of a revised evacuation checklist and a set of procedures to accommodate a damaged cooling system once the spacecraft descends and flies high.

In other words, the trio would have to risk it inside a seemingly damaged starship simply because they had no other choice. Yes, the SpaceX Crew Dragon has also been docked to the station, but that means bringing back the remaining crew, who are NASA astronauts Nicole Mann, Josh Kasada and Koichi Wakata from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and Anna Kikina from Roscosmos. As for the Progress 81 parked outside, this is an Expendable Goods Vehicle that burns on re-entry, so it’s clearly not an option.

A large-scale evacuation of the International Space Station has never happened, nor is it likely to happen anytime soon. But these two simultaneous incidents — the leaking spacecraft and the menacing space junk — are a reminder that space can be a very dangerous place to work, and that the astronauts out there are always at risk.

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