Space station to dodge Chinese space junk before SpaceX Crew-3 astronaut launch

The International Space Station as seen from a Soyuz crew capsule.
The International Space Station as seen from a Soyuz crew capsule. (Image credit: Roscosmos)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The International Space Station will have to dodge a piece of Chinese space junk today (Nov. 10) just hours before SpaceX launches a new crew to the orbiting laboratory, NASA officials said.

SpaceX is set to launch four astronauts on the Crew-3 mission for NASA tonight at 9:03 p.m. EST (0203 GMT on Nov. 11). But before that crew — NASA astronauts Raja Chari, Tom Marshburn, and Kayla Barron and astronaut Matthias Maurer of Germany — lifts off, the International Space Station must move out of the path of a piece of Chinese space junk

"The space station team is tracking a piece of debris and are planning a debris avoidance maneuver about six hours prior to launch," Joel Montalbano, NASA's International Space Station program manager, told reporters late Tuesday in a prelaunch briefing.

Live Updates: SpaceX's Crew-3 astronaut mission

Russia's space agency Roscosmos said today that the maneuver will begin at 3:15 p.m. EST (2015 GMT) and fire thrusters on the visiting Progress MS-18 cargo ship (dubbed Progress 79 by NASA) for 361 seconds to steer clear of the debris.

The object the space station will dodge is called 35114 in NASA's catalog of space objects, and is also identified at 1999-025DKS, a piece of debris from a Chinese anti-satellite weapons test in 2007. Originally part of a Chinese weather satellite, the debris resulted from an in-orbit missile test performed by China. As part of that test, a kinetic-energy, suborbital missile was fired at a defunct Chinese weather satellite called Fengyun-1C (which stopped working in 2002), obliterating it into thousands of pieces. 

The destroyed satellite was originally in a much higher orbit, but atmospheric drag has pulled the debris closer to Earth over the years and ultimately into the flight path of the space station. The two objects' closest approach is estimated to occur on Nov. 12, according to Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at Harvard who tracks and catalogs objects in space. McDowell tweeted on Tuesday that his calculations show that this will be the 29th space station debris avoidance maneuver, and the third related to the 2007 Chinese anti-satellite test. 

McDowell also said that the destruction of the satellite in orbit produced 3,537 pieces of known debris (two pieces were added to that total this week) and of that number, 27,37 remain in orbit. 

Montabalno said that the space station's debris-dodging maneuver will have no impact on the launch and that the Dragon will be able to catch up to the station without issue. 

"We did have a reboost planned for Nov. 16 and this maneuver will go ahead and take care of that," he said. (The space station periodically has to boost its orbit by firing the thrusters on one of the attached spacecraft to raise its orbit slightly.)

The International Space Station is currently home to three crew members of the Expedition 66 mission. Its crew includes NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei and Russian cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov.

SpaceX's Crew-3 launch will boost the station's population back up to its full seven-person crew size once it reaches the station Thursday night (Nov. 11). Four other astronauts, members of SpaceX's Crew-2 mission, returned to Earth late Monday to end a 199-day mission to the station.

You can watch SpaceX's Crew-3 launch today live here and on the homepage, courtesy of NASA TV. If all goes as planned, the crew will dock with the space station approximately 22 hours after liftoff. 

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Amy Thompson
Contributing Writer

Amy Thompson is a Florida-based space and science journalist, who joined as a contributing writer in 2015. She's passionate about all things space and is a huge science and science-fiction geek. Star Wars is her favorite fandom, with that sassy little droid, R2D2 being her favorite. She studied science at the University of Florida, earning a degree in microbiology. Her work has also been published in Newsweek, VICE, Smithsonian, and many more. Now she chases rockets, writing about launches, commercial space, space station science, and everything in between.