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This is what a tiny speck of debris can do to a ship hurtling through space

Something very, very small did this.
  • Mike Murphy
By Mike Murphy

Technology editor

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

When you’re orbiting the Earth at about 5 miles per second (18,000 mph), nearly anything your ship comes into contact with can leave a mark.

Last month, a tiny fragment of something, likely no larger than a few thousandths of a millimeter, hit the window of one of the observation rooms on the International Space Station, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced today. British astronaut Tim Peake took the above photo of the window from the Cupola module of the ISS, looking out through the chip into the void of space.

“I am often asked if the International Space Station is hit by space debris,” Peake told the ESA. ”Yes—this is the chip in one of our Cupola windows, glad it is quadruple glazed.”

Tim Peake hanging out in the Cupola module.

The ESA said the debris was likely a tiny metal fragment, or even a paint flake, and it left a chip about 7 mm (0.27 in) wide in the space station’s reinforced window.

The agency was quick to acknowledge that a piece of debris this small wasn’t likely to cause any major damage to a ship, but an object just 1 cm (0.4 inches) could potentially cut through the shields on a ship, and a 10 cm (about 4 inches) object could tear through a satellite or ship traveling at orbit speeds. The ESA has said previously that there are over 700,000 pieces of debris orbiting the Earth right now.

It’s just another difficult reality astronauts have to think about as they sit looking out from a fragile metal can in the harsh environment of space. Especially if they’ve seen the film Gravity.

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