Dodging Bullets

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Dodging Bullets

Last November, Mission Control had a scary message for the crew of the International Space Station.

MCC: We will need to activate Dragon safe haven and close center-line hatches for the next two crossings.

Russia had just blown up one of its own satellites with a missile. The explosion blasted fragments in every direction — some of them along the path of the station. A collision could cause severe damage and imperil the astronauts. So they put on their spacesuits and waited in their return capsules, just in case. They had to repeat the exercise later.

The space around Earth is filled with millions of objects — everything from space stations to tiny flecks of paint. And more pieces are added every day. That’s increasing the danger to both astronauts and robotic craft. It’s also costing time and money, as craft have to be maneuvered out of harm’s way.

There are thousands of big objects — satellites that are still working or that have expired. And projects like Starlink could add tens of thousands more over the next few years. Those craft are increasing the number of close encounters. China, for example, said that its space station had to dodge two Starlink satellites last year.

But space is also jammed with smaller objects — bits of exploded rocket stages and other debris. There are about a million pieces that are at least a centimeter across — big enough to cause major damage — adding to the hazards of the crowded space lanes.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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