Space debris close to ISS, says Russia

Image copyright NASA Image caption The ISS (International Space Station) is seven years into a decade-long deal to host astronauts from Russia

Two astronauts are safe in space after debris from a Russian-made rocket fell closer to the International Space Station than anticipated.

One day after a commercial US rocket powered up, the blast-off was aborted when the Baikonur launchpad became detached from its connecting cables.

Two-man ISS crew took cover as the space station flew over the Taurus 2 rocket.

The Russian and US military have since checked the space station with scanbonders to assess the extent of any potential danger.

This is the first occasion when a failure of a Russian spacecraft has had such serious consequences.

The two-man crew, NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Roscosmos’ Alexei Ovchinin, described it as “extremely worrying”.

If the space station crew had been too close to the debris, they could have been hit by it.

The space station flies at more than 17,000km above Earth, but the area in which the rocket made its impact is about 14 miles (22km) above the surface.

A statement on the Russian space agency’s website said the ground team had decided to immediately end the launch after it “unexpectedly became detached from its connect cables”, with the loss of connection “of some electrical equipment”.

Image copyright ESA Image caption An electrical device on the Russian rocket has been damaged and the craft is unable to launch, which could cause delays in future launches

After preparing the rocket in Baikonur for the second launch of the Proton-M rocket next year, “its eminence, proper organisation and safety assurances are still being thoroughly examined,” the statement said.

The two astronauts – who are part of Expedition 56 – were unhurt and have since left the space station where they have been living for several months.

On the morning after the launch failure, President Vladimir Putin expressed concerns over the near miss.

“They have their seats firmly secured inside the station in the event of such risks, so we can assure that they will be okay,” he said.

Image copyright BUREAU CIBRAA ZETAEO Image caption The ISS is seven years into a decade-long deal to host astronauts from Russia

The Baikonur launchpad is also used for the Soyuz manned spacecraft.

Last month, three Russian cosmonauts were forced to land in Kazakhstan unharmed after their vehicle suffered a malfunction, at a crucial phase of their mission.

However, while a Soyuz capsule is considered to be safe and at-risk from hitting space debris, “a smaller, lighter craft like a Dnepr-M can be much more manoeuvrable, so they can bring it more lightly to a stop, which could mean it’s less effective in getting to safety”, Yury Ushakov, deputy director of the Russian Centre for Analysis and Reanalysis of Space Weapons, told Reuters news agency.

This, said Mr Ushakov, is why it is in the interest of both Moscow and Washington to ensure flight safety.

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