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Space Junk Forces Astronauts Into Capsule

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Soyuz capsule docked at International Space Station.  (Source: AP)

Soyuz capsule docked at International Space Station. (Source: AP)

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CAPE CANAVERAL, (CBS4) – NASA ordered the three astronauts on the International Space Station to seek shelter inside a Soyuz space capsule when a small piece of space debris drifted dangerously close to the orbiting platform.

The debris, about 6 inches square, was from a Chinese satellite which was deliberately destroyed in 2007 as part of a weapons test. It was projected to pass within three miles of the space station, warranting a red threat level, NASA’s highest.

Mission Control notified the crew of the latest threat Tuesday morning, a few hours after the risk was identified. The three crew members are Dmitry Kondratyev, the station’s Russian commander, American Catherine Coleman and Italian Paolo Nespoli.

Just last Friday, the space station had to move out of the way of an orbiting remnant from a two-satellite collision in 2009.

Debris is an increasingly serious problem in orbit, because of colliding and destroyed spacecraft. At 5 miles a second, damage can be severe, even from something several inches big. Decompression, in fact, is at the top of any spacefarers’ danger list.

More than 12,500 pieces of debris are orbiting Earth — and those are the ones big enough to track.

(©2011 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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