Space is scary: ISS crew cowers from space junk peril

Astronauts on the ISS were forced to take cover in an emergency Soyuz capsule today, as debris from an old satellite threatened to pummel the space station. Damage to the orbiting research facility was, thankfully, avoided, NASA has confirmed, but the unexpectedly close pass of broken chunks of Russian weather satellite forced emergency precautions as there was no time to move the ISS out of the way.

Dodging debris is one of the occupational hazards when you're orbiting the Earth, but usually the ISS crew has time to prepare. Objects that could cause damage are normally tracked, and there's a special pre-programmed maneuver that can be used to tweak the space station's orbit should one be predicted to come too close.

Such maneuvers have been undertaken 22 times in the space station's history, NASA says.

However, this time around the warning came too late, sending the three-person crew of the ISS scurrying to refuge in one of the Russian Soyuz capsules kept permanently docked to act as a life raft.

The hatch was closed but not latched, though the astronauts did close off the various internal doors in the ISS before they boarded, so as to minimize potential decompression damage should it be struck.

In the end, though, the debris passed with no issue, and NASA gave permission for the crew to leave the Soyuz after a few minutes.

If it all sounds familiar, that might be because you saw 2013 movie Gravity with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. There, a shower of debris from a broken satellite not only took out a space shuttle but the ISS too, prompting the film's makers' to cook up a complex – and scientifically accurate – computer-generated representation of what it might look like should a space station come crashing in through the atmosphere.

Meanwhile, the ISS is preparing for three new crew-members to travel up, with Soyuz Commander Oleg Kononenko along with Flight Engineers Kjell Lindgren and Kimiya Yui currently at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan waiting for their own Russian capsule to shuttle them into orbit.