The Guardian/NASA

NASA Astronauts Just Lost a Key Piece of The International Space Station

And now it's floating free through space.

BEC CREW
31 MAR 2017
 

Doesn't matter how many times you do it, spacewalks are always risky business, and this week's was no exception, with NASA Astronauts Peggy Whitson and Shane Kimbrough venturing out of the International Space Station (ISS) to carry out some repairs.

Whitson managed to break records during the spacewalk, becoming the oldest and most experienced woman to perform a spacewalk, but the task was not without incident - the pair accidentally dropped a key piece of cloth shielding from the ISS, and it's now been lost in the vast expanse of space.

 

When the veteran astronauts realised what had happened, Whitson reported it to Mission Control, which immediately started tracking the 1.5-metre (5-foot) object as it floated away into space.

You can see the actual event happen in the gif below, which occurred about midway through their seven-hour spacewalk. The shielding starts floating behind Whitson's right shoulder:

spacewalkThe Guardian

To be clear, despite being an irritating setback for the astronauts, the situation has been resolved, so there's no reason to panic.

The pair were able to patch up the hole left by the missing cloth shielding very quickly, so there's no risk to the ISS without it.

NASA says they'll know well in advance if there's any risk of the object flying back in and colliding with the space station, but at this stage, that's highly unlikely.

 

Here's what the missing shielding looks like, as NASA tracked its whereabouts soon after its escape:

According to Marcia Dunn for the Associated Press, the lost shielding is designed to protect the ISS from micrometeorite debris, and was one of four pieces that Whitson and Kimbrough were installing over the gap left by a relocated docking port. 

It's not clear how the 8-kg (18-pound) shield broke free and made a run for it, but the astronauts were able to rectify the situation by fitting a temporary cover over the gap in the docking port - a plan devised by quick-thinking members of the Mission Control team.

"You guys came up with a fantastic plan on short notice," Whitson told Mission Control.

It's not a perfect fit, but it'll do the job for now.

This shielding might have been on the larger side of things that have been lost during a spacewalk, but it's not the only thing. 

"Sometimes bolts will go," NASA spokesman Dan Huot told The Washington Post. "There was one spacewalk where we lost an entire bag of tools."

So what happens to all this lost property? It ends up being pulled into our planet's orbit, and will eventually make its way back in Earth's atmosphere, where it will burn up before it can cause any trouble.

According to Dr Karl over at ABC News, there are currently billions of space junk pieces smaller than 1 mm (0.04 inches) out in Earth's orbit, hundreds of millions of objects between 1 and 10 mm (0.04 to 0.4 inches) in size, and about half a million objects in the range 1 to 10 cm (0.4 to 4 inches).

About 100,000 pieces of space junk are estimated to be bigger than 5 cm, and earlier this year, the US Space Command's Joint Space Operations Centre said it was regularly tracking more than 22,000 objects orbiting Earth.

Let's just hope none of them start a war. 

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