(CNN) -- The crew of the international space station had a close call with a spent satellite engine in Earth orbit Thursday, forcing the crew to take shelter aboard its return capsule before the object passed harmlessly, NASA said.
Orbital debris was threatening to hit the station but passed by just before 1 p.m. EDT without causing damage, NASA said.
Mission controllers detected the orbiting debris too late for the three-man crew to take evasive action, NASA reported. The crew took shelter in the Russian-made Soyuz capsule "in the unlikely event the debris collided with the station, causing a depressurization," the space agency said in a written statement.
The crew was to return to the station after the object -- a piece of a satellite rocket motor left behind by an earlier space shuttle mission -- passed by, NASA said. Watch a NASA spokesman explain the evacuation »
Construction on the station's orbital platform began in 1998, and it has had astronauts aboard since 2000. The Soyuz is the workhorse of the Russian space program, and one has been kept at the station for use as a possible lifeboat in case of emergency.
CNN's John Zarrella and Kim Segal contributed to this report.