Last week, the world cast its eyes upwards as a module docking-gone-awry sent the International Space Station (ISS) into a spin after a new Russian module accidentally fired its thrusters. While it sounds dramatic, NASA announced that the uncontrolled spin had altered the ISS’s altitude by a mere 45 degrees, before it was corrected and set back on the normal path.
Well, NASA now admits it wasn’t quite that minor – while the ISS did spin 45 degrees, this was only partly through the entire ordeal. The ISS actually spun a huge 540 degrees, or a full rotation and a half.
Before you imagine a rapid spin in which scientific implements are thrown across the station and Sandra Bullock rockets around the outside attached by a single tether, space isn’t quite like that. In fact, the spin was so slow (just 0.56 degrees per second) that the astronauts and cosmonauts on board wouldn’t have felt a thing.
Still, the event was a huge error and required all hands on deck to secure the station. The solar arrays were stowed and locked, radiators were locked, and the crew worked to counteract the spin using available thrusters dotted around the ISS. After the existing thrusters were not enough to realign the space station, the crew utilized a docked Russian cargo ship’s thrusters as well to add enough power. The ISS ended up performing a 180-degree flip to return to the planned orientation.
The incident happened when Russia’s new module Nauka docked with the ISS successfully, but malfunctioned after three hours and activated its thrusters. The entire station was knocked out of alignment for 47 minutes before ground sensors identified the problem and alerted the ground team.
“And so at first I was like, ‘Oh, is this a false indication?’” said Zebulon Scoville, the flight director in charge that day at NASA's mission control center in Houston, in an interview with The New York Times. “And then I looked up at the video monitors and saw all the ice and thruster firings. This is no kidding. A real event. So let’s get to it. You get about half a breath of ‘Oh, geez, what now?’ and then you kind of push that down and just work the problem.”
As Nauka is the first new ISS module for a decade, it was a shame to see technical difficulties get in the way of an otherwise incredible feat. However, after righting itself and fixing the malfunction, all astronauts were absolutely fine and the ISS has resumed normal operation.
In fact, cosmonauts Oleg Novitskiy and Pyotr Dubrov have shared with people a brief glimpse inside the new module, which will act as a science facility, promising a more detailed tour soon.