Astronauts Ordered to Seek Shelter as Debris Threatens Space Station

NASA ordered the three astronauts currently aboard the International Space Station (ISS) to seek shelter in an attached capsule as they fear that a small piece of debris floating dangerously close could prove disastrous. This particular piece of space junk, one of more than 12,000 bits currently orbiting Earth, is from a Chinese satellite that was destroyed back in 2007 as part of that country's weapons testing program. Projected to pass within three miles of the ISS, the junk sparked a red threat level, the highest in NASA's warning system.

"The orbit of the space junk is extremely erratic, and there's quite a bit of atmospheric drag on it, said NASA spokesman Josh Byerly," according to the Associated Press. "Experts monitored the debris into the early afternoon, to determine its exact path, and later told the crew that they might not have to close themselves off in the Soyuz spacecraft. The threat level, however, remained red."

If the risk remains high, the astronauts -- Russian Dmitry Kondratyev, Italian Paolo Nespoli and American Catherine Coleman -- will be forced to remove the ventilation lines that are currently running between the ISS's major modules and seal the hatches that separate individual rooms. At that point, radio channels would be switched so that the crew is in constant contact with flight teams on the ground in both Moscow and Houston.

There's no word yet from NASA on how the debris might affect the arrival of a second Soyuz spacecraft that is currently speeding toward the ISS. The spacecraft, which launched from Kazakhstan on Monday as part of Expedition 27, is scheduled to arrive on Wednesday evening. It is carrying three more crew members.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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