Update (April 26, 2021): According to a statement just issued from the U.S. Space Command, initial reports did indicate that there was a collision threat to the crew during flight. However, upon review, it was discovered that the potential collision was actually a reporting error. As a result, Space Command notes that there was no threat, as there was no object. Our original reporting follows.
During the recent successful launch of SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft, the crew had a close run-in with an unidentified object. While en route to the International Space Station at around 13:30 EST, the object, as yet unknown at the time of writing, came within a cat's whisker of the craft (on the scale of the universe).
Initially believed to be an immediate threat to the crew and craft, the object was later determined to be around 28 miles (45 km) away at its closest point. Although this may seem far away to most, when it comes to space travel, it's actually worryingly close. Thankfully, the Dragon spacecraft and the object passed each other safely, and the SpaceX craft continued safely on its way to its final destination.
“The NASA/SpaceX team was informed of the possible conjunction by US Space Command,” NASA spokesperson Kelly Humphries told Futurism. “The object being tracked is classified as ‘unknown.'”
According to Humphries, the threat was very real at the time, and with no time to plan and try to perform evasive maneuvers, the crew was ordered to put on their pressurized suits — just in case.
About 7 hours after its successful launch from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, NASA mission control informed the crew that they had picked up a potential inbound object.
The crew, NASA's Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Thomas Pesquet, and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, are all on their way to perform various tasks about the ISS when they finally arrive.
This object, as believed at the time, was on a collision course with the Dragon, and NASA suggested that the crew should take precautions ASAP.
Prior to this, the crew had removed their suits as they prepared to sleep at around 14:00 EST, as per the original flight schedule.
"For awareness, we have identified late-breaking possible conjunction with a fairly close miss distance to Dragon. As such, we do need you to immediately proceed with suit donning, securing yourself in seats. We will be erring on the side of caution to get you guys in a better configuration. The time of closest approach for this event is at 13:43[EST], " SpaceX's crew operations resource engineer Sara Gillis told the crew.
It was a somewhat harrowing time for all aboard.
It was a close-run thing, but all is well
The Dragon craft is designed to be fully autonomous, but the crew can take manual control if needed. Thankfully, this was not needed during the recent near-miss.
By around 13:42 EST, the crew had successfully put on their suits, secured themselves in their seats, and pressurized them. Around 20 seconds, give or take, before the estimated closest approach of the object, Gillis reassured the crew that the object actually appears to be further away than initially suspected.
She did, however, tell them to keep their suits on — just in case. Fortunately for all involved, the object passed by safely.
After the event, the Dragon crew managed to dock with the ISS.
Just what this object was is still unknown, but intense investigations are currently ongoing to find out. Notably, as more and more missions take place, the amount of space junk increases. Private and government-funded organizations are expanding our presence in space. They are building bases, launching satellites, taking crew tow and from the ISS, and they even have plans to build livable habitats within the next few decades (if not sooner).
However, for us to reach Mars and beyond, we first need to be able to get off this planet safely.
According to the European Space Agency, there are 128 million objects the size of 1 mm to 1 cm, 900,000 objects the size of 1 cm to 10 cm, and 34,000 objects greater than 10 cm currently whizzing about Earth. Many of these objects are traveling around our planet at roughly 28,163.52 kph, or about 10 times faster than a bullet.
According to senior NASA scientist Jack Bacon, the threat is very real. A collision with just a piece of aluminum about 10-centimeters in size would be the equivalent to detonating 7 kilograms of TNT.
NASA's Orbital Debris Program Office is monitoring the space debris, tracking all the known objects that orbit our world. Additionally, the team collaborated with other governments and private institutions to gain a better scope of the issue. But each year, the work becomes harder, which increases the risk of missions, like SpaceX's most recent launch.
Of course, we don't know that the object was space junk. It just as easily could have been a small piece of rock or another kind of natural space debris. But whatever it was, it's a stark reminder that space travel is always risky business, and constant vigilance and monitoring are required to keep astronauts safe.
Interesting Engineering reached out to NASA and SpaceX for comment. At the time of publication, we have not received a response.