That should wake you up, even without an alarm. Actually, it was an alarm that went off Wednesday night aboard the International Space Station cruising 250 miles above the Earth.
Actually, it was only Wednesday night in the United States. Aboard the space station, there are 16 nights every day, one for each orbit at 17,500 miles an hour. Also 16 sunrises, in case you’re counting.
So, the alarm goes off signaling an air leak in the vast platform that’s almost the length of an American football field. It houses six astronauts from the U.S., Europe and Russia. So, they drop everything and….
Actually, they can’t drop anything up there because there’s no gravity.
Anyway, they had to find the leak. Eventually, they did. It wasn’t actually in the 18-year-old space station. It was in the Soyuz spacecraft parked at the space station for the next crew rotation download to Kazakhstan.
The hole was small, just 1.5 millimeters. But potentially deadly if there’s a sudden decompression. Remember Gert Frobe’s fate when his gun went off in the plane in “Goldfinger”?
Russian space chief Dmitry Rogozin speculated the leak may have been caused by a micrometeorite impact. “The crew safety is not in danger,” he said. “The spaceship will be (fixed). A repair kit will be used.”
Of course, it could also have been space debris. There are millions of pieces of man-made junk orbiting the Earth — dead satellites, spent rocket motors, tools dropped by astronauts during space walks, all traveling in different intersecting orbits at thousands of miles an hour in the vacuum of space. And no fines for littering.
In early 2009, a defunct Russian satellite destroyed a working U.S. Iridium commercial communications satellite. That incident added more than 2,000 pieces of trackable debris to the inventory of space junk.
And the Chinese decision 11 years ago to practice war in space by targeting one of its satellites with a missile didn’t help the clutter either. It added thousands of pieces of metal litter.
The U.S. Air Force tracks all the pieces it can currently and projects the path of each against the orbits of the space station and secret defense satellites. NASA estimates there are 20,000 pieces of space junk up there larger than a softball and a half-million the size of a marble.
With new tech in the pipeline, it might someday get down to grain-sized objects. Might seem extreme but flying paint flecks have already damaged the station’s windows.
As Wednesday’s incident shows, such a tiny object could be potentially catastrophic. Space station operators on the ground have safety parameters for clutter traffic it can see and has a few times used thrusters to move the space station out of the anticipated harm’s way.
Actually, the station also has an emergency safety pressure chamber, kind of like a campus safe space without the free sodas, couches and video games.