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‘Lucky strike’? Space debris punches hole in robotic arm on International Space Station

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A piece of orbital debris crashed into the robotic arm on the International Space Station, blasting a hole through the high tech equipment in what Canada’s space agency deemed an unlikely collision.

The space junk slammed into the ISS’s ‘Canadarm2’ in mid-May, the Canadian Space Agency confirmed in a press release last week, noting that while the “utmost precautions” are taken to avoid collisions, “impacts with tiny objects do occur.”

“One such hit was noticed recently during a routine inspection of Canadarm2 on May 12,” the CSA said, though added that the arm continues to function without issue.

Despite the impact, results of the ongoing analysis indicate that the arm’s performance remains unaffected. The damage is limited to a small section of the arm boom and thermal blanket. A hole approximately 5mm in diameter is visible.

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The space agency labeled the impact a “lucky strike,” presumably referring to the slim odds that such a tiny piece of debris would crash into the 57-foot long Canadarm2, which has a diameter of just 14 inches. 

It’s unclear what actually hit the station, with the CSA saying some objects are simply “too small to be monitored,” though both Canada’s space agency and NASA are still investigating the collision. More than 23,000 objects the size of a softball or larger have been detected in orbit, with each tracked by radar to avoid potential collisions.

The robotic arm is used to perform maintenance on the ISS, move supplies and equipment and to carry out “cosmic catches,” in which it latches onto an incoming craft to berth it to the space station, according to NASA. While the latest impact won’t affect operations, the arm can be repaired in orbit even if severely damaged, made up of modular parts that are easily replaced in space. 

The May 12 impact is not the ISS’s first encounter with an errant piece of space junk. In April 2013, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield reported another run-in with a “small stone from the universe,” saying it punched a “bullet hole” in the station’s solar array. “Glad it missed the hull,” he added, also sharing a photo of the damage.

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