The threat of approaching "space junk" forced the crew of the International Space Station (ISS) into evacuation mode today.
The danger of an object speeding into the path of the ISS was deemed so severe that it caused NASA to declare an emergency shortly after noon Eastern Time. That sent the two astronauts and one cosmonaut aboard to don spacesuits and scramble into the attached Soyuz reentry capsule, pending the approach of the unknown object.
The emergency was declared over at 12:45 pm EDT, according to a NASA press release, and the crew was given the "all clear."
Astronauts Sandra Magnus and Michael Fincke and cosmonaut Yury Lonchakov then were ordered back to their quarters to continue their normal routines on the science platform.
A spokesperson for NASA said the errant object was about one-third of an inch in width, which would have been large enough to tear a hole in the space station's cabin, depressurizing the vehicle. The debris may have been a piece from a rocket engine that carried a previous payload to the space station itself (thereby putting it in the same orbital plane).
NASA estimates that there are some 170 000 broken pieces of spacecraft of the object's size orbiting the planet.
Today's collision drill was the eighth of its type in the nine-year history of manned operations aboard the ISS but the first ever that escalated to the degree where an escape procedure was required. Usually, ground controllers are able to warn the ISS crew sufficiently in advance of a potential threat to have them maneuver the space station away from an approaching object.
"The crew is safe and back in the space station, and they are resuming normal operations," NASA public affairs officer Laura Rochon said after the event.