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27 Apr, 2021 10:58

‘Near-collision’ between Crew Dragon and ‘space debris’ spotted by eagle-eyed observers, but was actually quite harmless (VIDEO)

An object floating in front of a camera during the launch of Crew Dragon last week was mistaken by some for a piece of dangerous space junk that the capsule got almost hit by on its way to the International Space Station.

The second manned mission by SpaceX’s Crew Dragon had a tense moment when crew members were told to don space suits due to a possible “conjunction event.” In essence, a piece of space debris was thought to be on a path too close to that of the spacecraft, and mission control thought a maneuver may be necessary as a precaution. No dodging was ultimately required and the alarm appears to have been false, US Space Command acknowledged on Monday.

But on Tuesday, some media said the capsule “appeared to narrowly avoid being struck by debris” and that the moment was caught by an on-board camera. Footage of the purported close encounter was indeed shown during the live broadcast, though it hardly warrants the alarming language.

During the separation of the space capsule from the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket, a small object could be seen floating across the field of view. What precisely it was is difficult to determine, but some space watchers speculated it could have been a small piece of ice that had formed on the rocket surface and became dislodged by the separation process. Regardless of its nature, it didn’t have the necessary property to pose a threat to the spacecraft – a high enough relative speed. 

The danger of space debris is relatively small, but it is growing as humanity continues to utilize its near space. A collision with even a small metal object flying at a high speed can be quite powerful and cause damage or even destruction of a satellite.

The worst-case scenario would be a cascading destruction of objects in low-Earth orbit, with each one sending new dangerous pieces of shrapnel along unpredictable orbits, ultimately making space launches impossible for years and decades, until projectiles are slowed by atmospheric drag and deorbit. Space agencies are working on ways to reduce the number of space junk, to mitigate the risk.

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