Sometimes, when the gringa is home alone at night, or early in the morning after the caveman leaves for work, my imagination goes into overdrive. I get a little spooked. Should an unexpected noise be heard, that’s it. No sleep for the gringa. But what if you were an astronaut, adrift in the vacuum of space, surrounded by nothingness for thousands of lightyears yet “something” came a-knocking?
I tell ya, the gringa would probably die of fright! There’s certainly no hope for fear to disappear when the sun comes up. No waiting around for the hubby to get back. No paranoid call to 911 for the comfort of a first responder to do a quick looksie around. Nope, an astronaut is all alone for the duration of the mission wondering what the heck just knocked on the door and when or if it’s coming back. Guess what? That actually happened.
Word has it that, back in 2003, when China’s first astronaut in space, Yang Liwei, was performing a 21-hour tour-of-duty aboard Shenzhen 5, something came knocking. He described the noise like the sound of a wooden hammer hitting against a metal bucket. So, he wasn’t spooked by a few creaks or phantom noises created in an over-active imagination like the gringa’s. He described a very distinct, and distinctly loud, noise.
If one eyewitness account of such is not enough for the skeptic, there were other Chinese astronauts who also reported the same banging noise. Consecutive missions, Shenzhou 6 and 7, had astronauts returning to Earth and sharing this news in their de-briefings.
The gringa believes it would be the opportunity of a lifetime to travel into space. Imagine the prestige an astronaut must be looking forward to when they get the news that they are slated for a mission. Certainly they envision a future shaped by this achievement. Success is at hand. With respect to their career, they have, indeed, arrived.
How, then, must it come to them as a terrible disappointment to realize that they will forever be haunted by their space experience. Do some astronauts return to an Earth-bound life, riddled with anxiety, swept up in paranoia that they are stalked by other-worldly watchers? Do they spend the rest of their life feeling a coward’s shame because they didn’t have the guts to answer the door and see who was there?
When interviewed by journalists from Xinhua, Astronaut Liwei explained some of these very emotions. He recounted that when he would hear the knocking, he would become very tense. The gringa thinks, “Yeah. I bet!” He would peek outside the windows only to see nothing. Returning to Earth he spent much time with researchers trying to replicate the noise with a variety of instruments and materials. But they were unsuccessful.
As crews for Shenzhou 6 and 7 were preparing, Liwie warned them that they should expect to hear the noise. He tried to put their minds at ease, assuring them that the noise must be a normal, natural phenomenon. But was Liwie telling the truth or making up a comfortable lie?
The characteristics of the noise were:
-acoustic quality of wood on metal
The Shenzhou spacecrafts are classified as cargo vessels. The craft’s name translates roughly into “magic boat” or “divine vessel of god”. When the craft was first put into use in 1999 by China it was an unmanned vessel. After several successful unmanned missions, Astronaut Yang Liwei achieved the first successful manned mission October 15, 2003, completing 14 orbits around Earth within 21 hours.
The 2 manned missions that followed also reported back the strange noises. Could this be why the 2011 mission was unmanned except for 2 test dummies? In 2012 manned missions resumed with a 3-person crew delivered to China’s Tiangong-1 space station in 2012, 2013 and a final mission in 2016 delivering crewmembers to China’s Tiangong-2 space station. One more mission is slated for 2018 but no details are yet available on whether it will be manned or not.
The spaceship’s technology has roots in Russia’s Soyuz technology. The modified Chinese version features 3 modules. Upon returning to Earth, only one module, the re-entry module, makes the return trip. That means that 2 modules, the orbital and service modules, do not have the same bulky heat shielding as the re-entry module.
The orbital module is constructed of aluminum. This is where the crew spends most of their time. If a piece of space debris came into contact with the outside of the module, it would probably make quite a noise.
But would a piece of debris make a single contact noise or might it bump around the perimeter of the craft a few times until it went on its merry way? Would a tiny bit of space junk, too small to see out a porthole make a noise as loud as Liwie described? Could the spacecraft survive an impact with a small piece of space debris? How likely is it that this is the source of the noise? Yes, the gringa is filled with questions.
NASA estimates more than half a million bits of space junk are floating around Earth. They can travel as fast as 17,500 mph. Even a pebble-sized bit of debris can wreak havoc and cause quite a bit of damage. Check out this picture provided by the European Space Agency (ESA). A solar array on satellite Sentinel-1A took a hit from a tiny bit of space junk (about a 1 millimeter bit) and it punched an enormous hole in one of the solar panels. The size of the damage was about 100 times the size of the junk that hit it.
In 2014, just 6 years after the last Shenzhou mission with a crewmember reporting the strange knocking noises, an important book was published. In “Forging China’s Military Might” much of the material discusses the nation’s space program. It is proposed that spacecraft design should feature a “bumper” to absorb meteor and space junk impacts. Proving the point that even micro-debris can be deadly, the author points to the Space Shuttle Challenger 7 mission. A tiny fragment of debris, and when the gringa says tiny, she means tiny, the debris was a FLECK OF PAINT… it caused so much damage the entire window had to be replaced.
So, did Liwie hear an ET knocking on his spaceship door? Probably not. It’s more likely that it was a bit of cosmic rubble knocking about.
Image Credits: VOA News
Video Credit: Paparazzi News