Russian Satellite Explosion Hazardous Debris ISS Sunita Williams Stuck Space Boeing Starliner Update NASA

The defunct Russian satellite RESURS-P1 has disintegrated into over 100 pieces, creating a significant hazard in low-Earth orbit. The explosion forced astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS), including Sunita Williams, to seek temporary refuge in their spacecraft on Wednesday, according to NASA. The event took place at an altitude of approximately 355 kilometres (220 miles) above Earth, around 10 a.m. Mountain Time (1600 GMT). The US space agency promptly ordered the ISS crew to shelter as a precautionary measure against potential collisions with the newly formed debris, The Independent reported.

There are immediate dangers posed by the sudden disintegration of the satellite, which Russia had declared non-operational in 2022. The reason behind the explosion remains unclear, with experts warning that the debris could pose a threat for months.

LeoLabs, a space-tracking firm, has been closely monitoring the aftermath. “We are now tracking at least 180 fragments resulting from this event,” the company stated on Thursday, as quoted by The Independent. “We expect this number to increase in the coming days. We are actively analysing the debris cloud to characterise it, identify a potential cause, and estimate the impact.”

The debris cloud from the RESURS-P1 satellite adds to the already crowded section of space, which houses thousands of other spacecraft, including crucial telecommunication satellites and SpaceX’s Starlink network. The region is also cluttered with remnants from previous satellite collisions, posing additional risks. 

Estimates from the United States Space Surveillance Network indicate there are over 200,000 objects measuring between 1-10 centimetres and tens of thousands larger than 10 centimetres. The proliferation of space junk raises the spectre of the Kessler effect, a scenario where cascading collisions generate a dense layer of debris, potentially making space travel impossible.

“Space junk is no one country’s responsibility, but the responsibility of every spacefaring country,” NASA asserted, as per The Independent. “The problem of managing space debris is both an international challenge and an opportunity to preserve the space environment for future space exploration missions.”

Despite the gravity of the situation, there are currently no international laws mandating space agencies or private companies to clean up debris, although there are increasing calls for global cooperation.

US Space Command confirmed that the RESURS-P1 satellite created over 100 pieces of trackable debris immediately following the explosion. By Thursday afternoon, LeoLabs’ radars had detected at least 180 fragments.

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Boeing Starliner Faces Extended Mission Amidst Technical Glitches, Astronauts Safe: NASA

 The return of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft may be delayed by several months as NASA and Boeing continue to investigate technical issues. The two astronauts aboard the inaugural crewed test flight, Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore, remain in good spirits and are actively participating in tasks aboard the International Space Station (ISS), according to officials cited by CNN.

Initially projected to be a short mission, the Starliner has encountered a series of challenges since its launch in early June. The spacecraft faced helium leaks and thruster outages on its journey to the ISS, leading to uncertainties about the astronauts’ return timeline.

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program Manager, Steve Stich, addressed these concerns at a Friday briefing, indicating that the mission duration might be extended from 45 to 90 days. “We’re just looking at the timeline to execute (the test in New Mexico) and then review the data,” Stich stated, as quoted by CNN. “And that’s what’s really the long pole, I would say, determining a landing date.”

The focus now is on conducting ground tests in New Mexico to ascertain the root cause of the thruster malfunctions. While four out of five faulty thrusters have been restored, one remains non-operational. Stich assured that there is no urgency to bring the astronauts home prematurely, emphasising safety over speed. “We’re not in a rush to come home,” he added.

Boeing’s vice president and program manager for the Commercial Crew Program, Mark Nappi, echoed Stich’s sentiments. Engineers are yet to pinpoint the exact cause of the Starliner’s issues. Nappi explained that the ground tests aim to narrow down potential reasons for the malfunctions. “So if (the test in New Mexico) comes back and gives us all the answers, then we can just undock and come home,” Nappi remarked, as per CNN’s report. “If it comes back and says, ‘Here’s 80% of the answer. And if you just run one more docked hot fire (test on the Starliner in orbit), then you can get 100% of the answers’ — then we want (Starliner) to be there so that we can get that information.”

Despite these setbacks, Williams and Wilmore have adapted well to their extended stay on the ISS. They have integrated with the station’s crew and continue to perform routine tasks, contributing to ongoing research and maintenance operations, the report stated.

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