Original article in the Houston Chronicle on 15/11/2021

Astronauts and cosmonauts onboard the International Space Station were told to take shelter from debris.

The cause of that debris has not yet been officially identified, but the U.S. Space Command confirmed Monday that it is new debris.

“U.S. Space Command is aware of a debris-generating event in outer space,” the Space Command said in a statement. “We are actively working to characterize the debris field and will continue to ensure all space-faring nations have the information necessary to maneuver satellites if impacted. We are also in the process of working with the interagency, including the State Department and NASA, concerning these reports and will provide an update in the near future.”

According to NASA, there are roughly 23,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball orbiting the Earth. There are half a million pieces of debris the size of a marble or larger, and about 100 million pieces of debris about .04 inches and larger. There is even more smaller micrometer-sized (0.000039 of an inch in diameter) debris.

There are many ways that debris can be created in space. Two satellites — or a satellite and piece of space junk — could collide while orbiting the Earth. Countries could launch anti-satellite missiles from the ground to destroy objects in orbit. There could also be a catastrophic anomaly, such as a satellite’s fuel tank exploding or its battery overheating and then exploding, said Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Harrison said it’s too soon to know what caused this new debris.

Brian Weeden, director of program planning for the Secure World Foundation that promotes the sustainable and peaceful use of space, said 18 or so pieces of orbital debris had been identified as of Monday morning. He believes a ground-launched missile or a collision between two large satellites would have created more debris.

“That low amount of debris is more in line with an internal explosion or a collision with a very small piece of debris,” Weeden said in an email. “However, it is early and there may be more pieces of debris that have not yet been reported.”

Russian space agency Roscosmos confirmed on Twitter that astronauts and cosmonauts took shelter from debris in the Soyuz and Crew Dragon spacecraft. The space station was no longer threatened by debris at the time of the Tweet.

“The orbit of the object, which forced the crew today to move into spacecraft according to standard procedures, has moved away from the ISS orbit,” Roscosmos said on Twitter.

The U.S. Space Force tracks items in Earth’s orbit. The U.S. Space Command — which is different from the Space Force, a military service responsible for training people and providing equipment — directs military forces as they move beyond the purview of gravity: operating and protecting satellites and working to deter conflict in space.

Private companies also track debris. And LeoLabs, which provides services to help avoid collisions, might have identified the satellite that caused this new debris (again, it’s not yet known how the debris was created but the satellite could have collided with something in space, exploded on its own or been shot down by a missile). LeoLabs said on Twitter that multiple objects have been detected near the expected location of Cosmos 1408, a satellite launched by the Soviet Union in 1982.

Updated/maj. 30-11-2021

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