Chinese Space Debris Heading Towards International Space Station, Russian Scientists Say

The International Space Station is going to have to dodge out of the way of a piece of space junk that's expected to pass within just 600 meters of it, Russia's space agency Roscosmos has said.

The debris fragment will fly close to the manned orbiting laboratory on November 12 at around 1 a.m. UTC, or 8 p.m. ET on November 11, prompting specialists to call for an evasive maneuver.

Roscosmos said that the piece of space junk is a fragment of an old Chinese weather satellite called Fengyun-1C that was launched into space back in 1999.

China caused controversy by intentionally blowing the satellite up in 2007 as part of an anti-satellite weapon test.

The satellite's destruction caused thousands of space debris fragments to be scattered into Earth orbit, according to some estimates. One conference paper authored partly by NASA researchers referred to the destruction as "the most severe artificial debris cloud in Earth orbit since the beginning of space exploration."

It is not clear how much of a risk the space fragment would pose to astronauts aboard the ISS in the event of a collision, and Roscosmos did not specify exactly how big the fragment is when asked by Newsweek.

Nonetheless the space agency said that, later today, the ISS is going to fire some on-board thrusters for a total of 361 seconds in order to move itself a safe distance from the debris.

"On Wednesday, November 10, at 20:15 UTC the Progress MS-18 cargo spacecraft docking and orientation engines will be fired for 361 seconds, giving the station a momentum of 0.7 m/s," said Roscosmos in a press release.

"After the corrective maneuver, the ISS orbit average altitude will increase by 1,240 meters and reach 420.72 kilometers."

Newsweek has contacted NASA for comment.

Even if the debris did hit the space station, it wouldn't be the first time.

During a routine inspection of the ISS' Canadarm2 tool in May, experts noted there appeared to be impact damage.

Analysis showed there was a 5 millimeter hole in a small section of the tool, which is a robotic arm located on the outside of the space station. According to the Canadian government, which contributed the tool to the station, the Canadarm2 continued to work fine despite the impact.

In September 2020, NASA announced that the ISS was going to make an avoidance maneuver after flight controllers back on Earth tracked an "unknown piece of space debris" that they said was going to pass within "several kilometers" of the lab.

The space agency said crew members were temporarily relocated to an Earth return capsule out of an abundance of caution until the debris had passed.

In May this year, NASA said the ISS has had to make a total of 29 evasive maneuvers since 1999 in order to dodge space debris.

The Canadian government has noted that over 23,000 objects "the size of a softball or larger" are constantly being tracked in space in order to predict a potential impact with the ISS or satellites.

Some fragments, though, are so small they can't be monitored with current technology. These include tiny particles of dust or even flecks of satellite paint.

Update 11/10/21, 9:46 a.m. ET: This article has been updated to include new information from Roscosmos.

International Space Station
A photo of the ISS orbiting Earth in May, 2011, taken by astronaut Paolo Nespoli. Experts constantly track space debris in an effort to prevent the manned station from being hit. Paolo Nespoli/ESA / NASA / Getty