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Hear how NASA alerted astronauts to incoming space debris after Russian anti-satellite test

Newly released audio shows the quick scramble the Expedition 66 crew undertook to get to safety following an anti-satellite test on Monday (Nov. 15).

A Russian impactor was deliberately smashed into a defunct Soviet satellite, Cosmos 1408, causing a cloud of debris that came unexpectedly close to the International Space Station early that morning.

The audio features a conversation between NASA astronaut and flight engineer Mark Vande Hei, who is on his second long-term duration flight in space.

"Sorry for the early call," the unnamed ground controller says; it probably was a fellow astronaut, as capcoms (capsule communicators) are generally tasked with such duties. "We were recently informed of a satellite breakup," the controller continues, "and need to have you start reviewing the safe haven procedure."

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The Expedition 66 crew poses for a portrait at the International Space Station, on Nov. 12, 2021. From left: Pyotr Dubrov of Roscosmos; Thomas Marshburn of NASA; Anton Shkaplerov of Roscosmos; Raja Chari, Mark Vande Hei and Kayla Barron, all from NASA; and Matthias Maurer from ESA.

The Expedition 66 crew poses for a portrait at the International Space Station, on Nov. 12, 2021. From left: Pyotr Dubrov of Roscosmos; Thomas Marshburn of NASA; Anton Shkaplerov of Roscosmos; Raja Chari, Mark Vande Hei and Kayla Barron, all from NASA; and Matthias Maurer from ESA. (Image credit: NASA)

Within seconds, Vande Hei calmly returns the call and repeats back the instructions that ground control gives, to confirm the instructions and make sure that he heard them correctly. (This is standard operating procedure among astronauts and Mission Control during emergencies, to make sure instructions are understood.)

The audio shows that the crew was asked to implement "safe haven procedures," including moving to their return spacecraft and closing hatches to radial modules on the station. These hatches included Columbus, Kibo, the Permanent Multipurpose Module (aka Nauka), Bigelow Expandable Activity Module and Quest Joint Airlock, NASA said in a statement.

Later in the audio, the crew is advised on what to do if a piece of debris hits the SpaceX Crew Dragon, which is the return craft for four of the seven crewmembers. Mission Control advises that if the spacecraft is hit, to return first to the ISS to await further instructions, which Vande Hei confirms.

The crew took shelter twice during the Monday morning event, which was later condemned by both the U.S. State Department and NASA administrator Bill Nelson, who said there will be a substantial additional risk to exploration in low Earth orbit. Both Roscosmos and the Russian government, conversely, have denied that the incident posed risk to the ISS.

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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for Space.com who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is the author or co-author of several books on space exploration. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota in Space Studies, and an M.Sc. from the same department. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University in Canada, where she began her space-writing career in 2004. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level, and for government training schools. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @howellspace.