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A debris cloud of space junk threatened International Space Station astronauts, forcing them to seek shelter in their spacecraft

The International Space Station. Photo: NASA

Astronauts on board the International Space Station sheltered in place Monday morning as space junk threatened to pass close to the station. The seven astronauts on board took refuge in two docked spacecraft as orbital space debris made a close pass, according to Russian state media.

Russian space agency Roscosmos says the station is now “in the green zone” and the orbit of the object has moved away from the orbit of the lab.

U.S. officials say a Russian anti-missile test is responsible for the debris cloud. NASA administrator Bill Nelson condemned the test.

“Their actions are reckless and dangerous, threatening as well the Chinese space station and the taikonauts on board. All nations have a responsibility to prevent the purposeful creation of space debris from ASATs and to foster a safe, sustainable space environment,” Nelson said in a statement released Monday evening. “NASA will continue monitoring the debris in the coming days and beyond to ensure the safety of our crew in orbit.”

Anytime there could be a close call with space debris, astronauts are required to take shelter in their spacecraft and seal certain hatches on the station. The crew is expected to pass through the debris cloud multiple times.

Potential collisions with space debris are rare. “The amount of space taken up by the debris is still small, you know, so the odds of actually getting hit are not that big,” says Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

While rare, a collision of a piece of debris just centimeters in size could be catastrophic to the orbiting lab.

“I think the bigger picture is even though it’s a small probability, the potential is there for a disastrous impact from a significant piece of debris,” says McDowell.

The U.S. military says it’s tracking a “debris-generating event in outer space.” The U.S. State Department said a Russian anti-satellite test which resulted in more than 1,500 pieces of orbital debris, but it’s unclear if this is the same debris threatening the space station.

“This test will significantly increase the risk to astronauts and cosmonauts on the International Space Station, as well as to other human spaceflight activities,” says Ned Price, U.S. State Department spokesperson. “The United States will work with out allies and partners to respond to Russia’s irresponsible act.”

Space debris tracking company LeoLabs is also observing multiple objects near a defunct Soviet-era satellite called Cosmos 1408 and experts speculate its the likely target for the anti-satellite test.

“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,” U.S. Space Command said in a statement.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates. 

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Brendan Byrne

About Brendan Byrne

Space Reporter and 'Are We There Yet?' Host

Brendan covers space news for WMFE, everything from rocket launches to the latest scientific discoveries in our universe. He hosts WMFE's weekly radio show and podcast "Are We There Yet?" which explores human space exploration. Brendan is a native Floridian, born and raised in Broward County. He moved to ... Read Full Bio »