ISS moves to avoid space debris, NASA confirms

International Space Station is forced to carry out an emergency manoeuvre to avoid bing hit by a piece of debris from a 2018 Japanese rocket

  • Flight controllers worked for two and a half minutes to adjust the station’s orbit
  • This was to avoid a piece of space junk created by the breakup of a 2018 rocket 
  • Russian and an American astronaut had to relocate to near the Soyuz capsule 
  • Astronauts returned to normal after the debris passed a mile from the station 

The International Space Station was forced to make an emergency manoeuvre to avoid hitting a piece of a 2018 Japanese rocket, NASA confirmed. 

Russian and US-based flight controllers on Earth worked together during a two-and-a-half minutes operation to adjust the station’s orbit to avoid the collision. 

Astronauts on the ISS – two Russians and an American – relocated to another area of the station to be near the Soyuz capsule in case evacuation was necessary.

The astronauts were able to return to their normal activities after the procedure, and the piece of debris passed within about a mile of the station.

The International Space Station – seen here on August 26, 2020 – performed a manoeuvre on September 22, 2020 to ensure it gets out of the way of a piece of space debris

The scrap was actually a piece of a 2018 Japanese rocket, astronomer Jonathan McDowell said on Twitter. The rocket broke up into 77 different pieces last year. 

‘Manoeuvre Burn complete. The astronauts are coming out of safe haven,’ NASA chief Jim Bridenstine said on Twitter after the event.

Bridenstine joined calls for better management of space junk in the future.  

The ISS usually orbits 260 miles above the Earth, at a speed of about 17,000 miles per hour and at that velocity even a small object could cause serious damage.

The type of manoeuvre carried out to avoid the Japanese rocket fragment necessary on a regular basis due to the number of pieces of debris surrounding Earth. 

NASA said 25 such manoeuvres had occurred between 1999 and 2018 but so far in 2020 there have already been three, according to Bridenstine.  

The operations could become even more frequent as Earth’s orbit becomes littered with pieces of satellites, rockets and other objects launched into space.

Accidental or deliberate collisions, including anti-satellite missile launches by India in 2019 and China in 2007, can break objects apart even further. 

It is believed there are around 160million pieces of debris floating around Earth, trapped in our planet’s gravity and travelling at 18,000mph.

Accidental or deliberate collisions, including anti-satellite missile launches by India in 2019 and China in 2007, can break objects apart even further

Of these, almost one million are believed to be larger than 0.4inches. If one of these were to collide with a satellite the damage would be devastating. 

‘Debris is getting worse! Time for Congress to provide @CommerceGov with the $15 mil requested by @POTUS for the Office of Space Commerce,’ Bridenstine tweeted.

The Office of Space Commerce is a civilian organisation that supporters want to take over the surveillance of space junk, a job currently occupied by the military.

Astronomers are concerned that high-value craft in low-Earth orbit, such as the International Space Station (ISS), could be destroyed by a rogue piece of debris. 

Currently, there is no way of accurately monitoring and tracking small pieces of debris which could be hurtling towards a multi-million pound satellite.


There are an estimated 170 million pieces of so-called ‘space junk’ – left behind after missions that can be as big as spent rocket stages or as small as paint flakes – in orbit alongside some US$700 billion (£555bn) of space infrastructure.

But only 22,000 are tracked, and with the fragments able to travel at speeds above 16,777 mph (27,000kmh), even tiny pieces could seriously damage or destroy satellites.

However, traditional gripping methods don’t work in space, as suction cups do not function in a vacuum and temperatures are too cold for substances like tape and glue.

Grippers based around magnets are useless because most of the debris in orbit around Earth is not magnetic.

Around 500,000 pieces of human-made debris (artist’s impression) currently orbit our planet, made up of disused satellites, bits of spacecraft and spent rockets

Most proposed solutions, including debris harpoons, either require or cause forceful interaction with the debris, which could push those objects in unintended, unpredictable directions.

Scientists point to two events that have badly worsened the problem of space junk.

The first was in February 2009, when an Iridium telecoms satellite and Kosmos-2251, a Russian military satellite, accidentally collided.

The second was in January 2007, when China tested an anti-satellite weapon on an old Fengyun weather satellite.

Experts also pointed to two sites that have become worryingly cluttered.

One is low Earth orbit which is used by satnav satellites, the ISS, China’s manned missions and the Hubble telescope, among others.

The other is in geostationary orbit, and is used by communications, weather and surveillance satellites that must maintain a fixed position relative to Earth. 


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