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Orbital debris strikes ISS robotic arm, leaves a mark

The Canadian Space Agency calls the hit to the International Space Station's Canadarm2 a "lucky strike."

These images show the debris strike on the Canadarm2 on the ISS.

NASA/Canadian Space Agency

One of Canada's most prominent contributions to the International Space Station is the Canadarm2, a nearly 60-foot-long (18-meter-long) robotic arm on the station exterior that helps with maintenance tasks and "catches" visiting spacecraft. The arm took a hit from a piece of orbital debris, leaving a noticeable mark.

A routine inspection on May 12 uncovered the damage, which came from a piece of debris that was too small to be tracked. Objects softball-size and bigger are monitored for potential collision with the ISS in orbit. 

If a tracked object might get too close, the station can adjust, as it did in September 2020 to avoid a piece of space junk. The crew on board at the time relocated to a docked Soyuz spacecraft as an extra precaution.

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and NASA took images of the impact to the arm, which left a hole in part of the boom and a white thermal blanket that wraps around it. 

"Despite the impact, results of the ongoing analysis indicate that the arm's performance remains unaffected," CSA said in a statement on Friday. Canadarm2 operations will move forward as planned, though the space agencies will continue to gather data on the damage. 

The space around Earth is getting increasingly crowded with satellites, old hardware and space junk. The ISS has to occasionally contend with small pieces of debris striking the station. European Space Agency Astronaut Tim Peake shared a sobering view of a chip in a window of the ISS back in 2016. 

The ISS was fortunate the latest debris hit seems to be cosmetic. CSA called it a "lucky strike."

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