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ISS Forced to Shift Its Position to Dodge Russian Space Junk

A chunk of satellite debris prompted the International Space Station to move to safety.

The International Space Station with an abundance of gear on the exterior.
The ISS had to move about in orbit to avoid debris.
NASA/ESA/Thomas Pesquet

In 2021, Russia blew up a defunct Cosmos 1408 satellite in orbit in a widely condemned missile test. On Monday night, the ISS conducted an avoidance maneuver to steer clear of space junk the test left behind.

"This evening, the International Space Station's Progress 81 thrusters fired for five minutes, five seconds in a pre-determined debris avoidance maneuver to provide the complex an extra measure of distance away from the predicted track of a fragment of Russian Cosmos 1408 debris," NASA said in a statement. Progress 81 is a Russian cargo craft docked to the ISS. The spacecraft's thrusters can be used to move the station around in orbit.

Without the maneuver, the debris fragment was expected to pass within 3 miles (5 kilometers) of the station, which would have been too close for comfort. The thrusters moved the ISS into a higher-altitude orbit.

NASA administrator Bill Nelson had called the missile test "irresponsible." The ISS crew was forced to take emergency shelter shortly after the test was conducted in 2021. Earlier in 2022, the European Space Agency's Earth-observing Sentinel-1A satellite barely escaped a collision with Cosmos 1408 debris.

Space junk is a worsening problem. The debris field ranges from nonfunctional full-size satellites to tiny bits of trash. Even small pieces can damage satellites, spacecraft and space stations. Space agencies are constantly tracking debris so corrections can be made to keep space assets safe.

NASA said Monday's repositioning maneuver didn't impact ISS activities.