Space just got more dangerous, if you can believe it.
NASA has indefinitely delayed its Nov. 30 spacewalk slated to repair a failed antenna on the International Space Station due to a “debris notification” it received that predicted a heightened risk of passing space junk, according to a tweet from the U.S. space agency.
And this comes two weeks after Russia targeted and destroyed its own satellite in Earth orbit with anti-satellite weapons technology, which forced the crew of the ISS to take shelter in the deeper recesses of the station in case one or several of the roughly 1,500 chunks of hypersonic debris penetrated the hull.
In case you missed it, space war tactics are beginning to increase the risks astronauts face during science missions.
Two NASA astronauts are on indefinite standby for a major ISS spacewalk
Two U.S. astronauts were supposed to take a spacewalk at 7:10 EST on Tuesday to begin repairing the faulty antenna, despite the reality of what NASA deemed a slightly elevated risk due to space debris from Russia’s anti-satellite missile test earlier in November. Roughly five hours before the astronauts planned to venture outside the station, NASA made a Twitter announcement that the spacewalk wasn’t going to happen today. “NASA received a debris notification for the space station,” read the tweet. “Due to the lack of opportunity to properly assess the risk it could pose to the astronauts, teams have decided to delay the Nov. 30 spacewalk until more information is available.” While the tone is calm and collected, the reality is serious: the most successful space agency ever is, at least for now, unwilling to send its astronauts on spacewalks, and the reason is probably that the actions of another country have endangered them.
It remains unclear how close this deadly debris has come to actually slamming into the space station, which orbits roughly 250 miles (402 km) above the surface of the Earth. It’s also true that NASA didn’t explicitly link this delay to the Russian anti-satellite weapons test. NASA TV was going to broadcast live coverage of the 6.5-hour EVA (extravehicular activity), where astronauts Kayla Brown and Thomas Marshburn would have stepped out into the big black abyssal depths of space. It would have been the first spacewalk for Barron, who’s 34 and a U.S. Navy submarine officer (the nuclear engineer’s debut spaceflight), and Mashburn, a 61-year-old medical doctor who’s also a former flight surgeon with two earlier space missions on their belt.
Astronauts face a higher risk of penetrated spacesuits in spacewalks
The goal of the spacewalk is to remove and replace a failed S-band radio communications antenna assembly that’s more than 20 years old with another one currently stowed on the exterior of the station. The two would have taken positions at the end of a robotic arm that a German astronaut named Matthias Maurer with the European Space Agency (ESA) can operate, with assistance from another NASA crewmate named Raja Chari.
But now it isn’t happening, with no official deadline for a second attempt at the spacewalk. The residual debris cloud from Russia’s anti-satellite missile test has dispersed considerably in the last two weeks, said NASA Deputy Manager of the ISS Dana Weigel, in a Reuters report. But the fundamental risk posed to operations on and around the ISS remains “slightly elevated”, with a 7% higher risk of penetrated space suits, compared to before Russia’s test. Time will tell how and when the risk reduces.