International Space Station swerves to avoid space debris from NASA rocket

The International Space Station flying above the Earth
Debris in space has increasingly become both a political and a safety issue. Photo credit: Getty Images

The International Space Station (ISS) had to alter its orbit over the weekend after space junk once again threatened to strike it.

The space station, which has been flying around the Earth for over 23 years, had to drop by over 300m as debris from an old NASA rocket called Pegasus flew nearby.

Russian space agency Roscosmos had been monitoring the fragment for a few days before deciding evasive action was required, firing the rockets on its Progress cargo spacecraft to lower its altitude.

It comes just three weeks after crew aboard the ISS were forced into their escape craft after repeatedly encountering an orbiting cloud of space debris.

That was caused by Russia blowing up a spy satellite as a test, drawing the ire of the United States which branded the move "reckless".

State Department spokesperson Ned Price also said the action was "dangerous and irresponsible" that jeopardised the long-term sustainability of outer space.

"The test has so far generated over 1500 pieces of trackable orbital debris and hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller orbital debris that now threaten the interests of all nations," Price said.

"This test will significantly increase the risks to astronauts and cosmonauts on the International Space Station as well as to other human spaceflight activities. [It] clearly demonstrates that Russia’s claims of opposing the weaponisation of space are disingenuous and hypocritical."

Former Danish Prime Minister and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen wrote that Russia's actions were the latest example of brinkmanship from leader Vladimir Putin.

In the piece for the Financial Times, he wrote the test should "act as a wake-up call to mankind as we risk turning Earth’s celestial neighbourhood into a junkyard".

"Unless we change course, the opportunities of space to improve our lives on Earth could be closed off for generations."

That echoes a call from former NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine who, last year, said the US Congress needed to provide funding to deal with the issue.

Using statistical models, the European Space Agency (ESA) has estimated there are 36,500 debris objects greater than 10cm in size in Earth's orbit. Due to the high speeds any collision could be catastrophic to the ISS and deadly to the astronauts.

Just last week astronauts Kayla Barron and Thomas Marshburn had to postpone a scheduled six hour spacewalk to replace a fault antenna because of that risk.

"NASA received a debris notification for the space station," the ISS Twitter account posted.

"Due to the lack of opportunity to properly assess the risk it could pose to the astronauts, teams have decided to delay the November 30 spacewalk until more information is available."