ISS shunted into wider orbit to avoid space junk from Chinese satellite

According to Russian space program Roscosmos, the ISS corrected its orbit to be around 1.2km higher than it had been orbiting previously.

A command was issued to fire the Progress MS-18 cargo spacecraft engines for six minutes, which was docked to the Zvezda Service Module ISS Russian segment.

Without the adjustment, Roscosmos said that a fragment of the Fengyun-1C satellite would have approached the station tomorrow morning and would have come within around 600m of the ISS.

“In order to dodge the ‘space junk’, [mission control] specialists have calculated how to correct the orbit of the International Space Station,” the agency’s statement said.

The ISS was hit by another piece of space junk in June this year, which took a chunk out of its 17m-long robotic arm.

The European Space Agency (ESA) had already published a 2021 report warning that space debris presents a problem “on a global scale”.

The amount of objects, their combined mass and their combined area has been steadily rising since the beginning of the space age, leading to the increased danger of involuntary collisions between operational payloads and space debris, it said.

The extent of the problem has been laid bare in recent years as newer technologies allowed space agencies to track ever-smaller particles floating in orbit.

Furthermore, smaller satellites designed to circle the Earth in a low-Earth orbit are becoming increasingly common, alongside services based on a network of tens or even hundreds of satellites operating in unison, such as SpaceX’s Starlink service.

As the space around Earth becomes increasingly cluttered, with rising levels of space debris threatening to obliterate satellites and knock out internet access, the world’s space agencies are looking at ways to clean up the orbital mess, with ideas ranging from robots to harpoons and nets.

With well over 6,000 satellites already circling above Earth, of which nearly 3,000 are defunct and classed as ‘space junk’, clean-up solutions represent a big business opportunity for organisations keen to tackle the space debris problem.

During the recent G7 Leaders’ Summit, held in Cornwall this June, delegates from the member countries collectively committed to the “safe and sustainable use of space” by going to greater lengths to tackle the problem of space debris.

Last year, the UK Space Agency granted £1m to seven companies developing projects to help with the active removal of space junk from orbit. More recently, the Agency called for space companies to bid for a share of an £800,000 fund to develop new concepts for space debris removal missions.

Earlier this week, four ISS astronauts were returned to Earth after a record six-month science mission. They were swiftly replaced by a new set of four astronauts who were flown into orbit yesterday, including a veteran spacewalker, two younger crewmates chosen for future lunar missions and a German materials scientist.