NASA delays spacewalk, citing space debris threat to astronauts

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NASA officials canceled a spacewalk for two of the agency’s astronauts late Monday night after receiving warnings that nearby space debris could endanger the crew. It was the latest abrupt change in International Space Station operations since Russia blew up one of its old satellites in space earlier this month.

“Due to the lack of opportunity to properly assess the risk it could pose to the astronauts, teams have decided to postpone the spacewalk scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 30, until more information is available,” NASA said in a statement it posted. . on Twitter early Tuesday morning.

Tom Marshburn and Kayla Barron, two American astronauts who arrived at the orbital outpost earlier this month, were set to don their spacesuits at 7:10 a.m. GMT on Tuesday and climb the outside of the lab. Their roughly six-hour mission was to replace a broken communications antenna.

The agency did not specify where the debris came from, and a NASA spokeswoman did not answer requests for comment. Officials said the spacewalk has been moved to Thursday.

Mark Vande Hei, a NASA astronaut on the space station, checked into mission control in Houston after he woke up to an email stating that the spacewalk had been canceled.

“Sorry about the news,” a NASA official in Houston replied to Mr. Vande Hei via the ground-to-space channel. “We’re probably almost as disappointed as the crew members today, but I know it’s a little harder for you to wake up to this news.”

“It’s just real life, that’s how things work sometimes, and I’m really glad people are looking out for our safety,” said Mr. Vande Hei.

Earlier this month, Russia hit a defunct Soviet-era satellite with an anti-satellite missile, creating thousands of untraceable grit that could remain in orbit for decades. The expanding field of dangerous space debris posed new threats to the space station, according to the US Space Command, and could endanger other satellites in orbit.

The first debris cloud from the Russian satellite attack came perilously close to the space station, which was home to a crew of seven astronauts, including two from Russia. A NASA mission control officer in Houston abruptly woke the agency’s astronauts shortly after the attack and urged them to take shelter in their spacecraft in case they had to return to Earth. The crew kept certain hatches on the station closed for days after the incident and opened them when the immediate danger had passed.

“There are about 1,700 new objects, larger objects that are being tracked,” Dana Weigel, NASA’s deputy manager for the space station, said Monday during a news conference previewing the planned spacewalk. “It will take a few months to catalog all these items and get them into our normal debris tracking process, where we can then assess the distances and how close these items are to the ISS.”

Ms Weigel said the Russian weapons test doubled the size of the background debris for the space station. She said the new wreckage raised the risk to spacewalking astronauts by about 7 percent. But she said it “is in the family” of similar risk calculations to previous spacewalks.

The Russian missile test, which took off from the Plesetsk launch site, about 650 miles north of Moscow, sparked anger among US officials and led to condemnation from other countries, including Australia, Canada and Britain.

NASA administrator Bill Nelson said shortly after the test that it was “pathetic that the Russians would do this”.

The spacewalk delay came a day before the White House is set to convene the first National Space Council meeting during Biden’s administration. In a letter sent to the council on Monday, Senate Commercial Affairs Committee lawmakers urged Vice President Kamala Harris, the council’s chairman, to conduct Russia’s anti-satellite test and “work to develop a international dialogue on standards for responsible behavior in space”.

There have been about a dozen spacewalks this year, many of which have added new components and solar panels to the exterior of the space station. NASA plans to run the 21-year-old orbital lab until 2030, pending congressional approval. But the station is already showing signs of age, such as cracks and air leaks discovered on a key module in 2019.

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