International Space Station (ISS) resident Samantha Cristoforetti has spoken about the threat space debris poses to the orbital outpost.
With the ISS orbiting Earth at over 17,000 mph, and with a lot of space junk doing the exact same thing, there’s definitely a risk of a Gravitystyle calamity occurs, although fortunately in the station’s 20-year history one serious event has yet to occur.
In a video shared with her half-million TikTok followers and a million Twitter fans, Italian astronaut Cristoforetti explained this week that much of the station’s exterior is covered in panels that serve as shields protecting the ISS. against micrometeorites and small pieces of space debris. , while the rest are super-strong fused silica and borosilicate glass windows.
— Samantha Cristoforetti (@AstroSamantha) September 8, 2022
Cristoforetti, who arrived at the space station in April for a six-month stay, said that if a small object breached the ISS’s defenses, it would likely cause a leak, sending air from the station into space. The loss of pressure can happen so slowly that the astronauts wouldn’t even realize it at first. Therefore, the station includes an emergency alarm for rapid pressure reduction.
The alarm detects a potentially dangerous pressure drop and alerts the crew to the situation. Investigating astronauts can then use a variety of tools to locate the leak before repairing it.
“If that doesn’t work – maybe because the leak is very small and so the airflow is very weak – we start closing the shutters module by module,” Cristoforetti explains in the video. “Once a hatch is closed, you can check the pressure with a portable manometer. If the pressure stabilizes, it means that you have determined that the leak is on the other side of the [closed] valve.”
One such incident occurred in 2020 when astronauts struggled to locate the source of a small leak at the station. After more than a month of searching, the leak was discovered in Russia’s Zvezda service module.
While Cristoforetti is mainly talking about small fragments floating through space, there are also quite large pieces of space debris orbiting the Earth. These old rocket parts or decommissioned satellites pose a much greater risk to the ISS. Fortunately, there are teams on the ground watching out for such hazards, and if a piece is detected toward the station, it’s instructed to raise or lower its track to avoid a potentially disastrous collision.
Sometimes, however, there is little time to take evasive measures. Last year, for example, ISS astronauts were instructed to take shelter in the station’s docked spacecraft when a cloud of junk came dangerously close. On that occasion, the ISS escaped damage, but the event was a reminder of the kind of risks astronauts take when traveling in space.