ISS Takes A Spin After New Module Accidentally Fires Thrusters After Docking

The Nauka module was originally planned to launch in 2007, and after 14 years and some last-minute drama, it got there. Image credit: Roscosmos

The entire International Space Station (ISS) was moved out of position yesterday when the new Russian science module – the station’s first new module in a decade – malfunctioned after docking. The module Nauka, the Russian word for science, inadvertently fired its thrusters about three hours after it had successfully docked, causing the ISS to briefly become destabilized.

Russian cosmonauts had been checking for leaks between the new module and the service module it had docked with when automatic sensors on the ground detected the problem. The unexpected thrust caused the ISS to lose control of its orientation for around 47 minutes, pitching out of alignment at about half a degree a second, according to NASA in a press conference yesterday, but the crew was never in any danger, or in fact, felt any movement. 

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After the mishap moved the station 45 degrees out of altitude, flight controllers activated the thrusters on the Russian Zvezda segment and a Progress freighter to right the station, pushing it back to its correct position. The incident began at 12.34 pm EDT and was over by 1.29 pm EDT.

"What we saw today was just an awesome job by the mission control flight teams," NASA's ISS program manager, Joel Montalbano, told reporters.

"Those guys were rock stars again and got us back in attitude control. That also shows you what a robust vehicle we have, and our ability to take these contingencies, recover from them and move on."

NASA's human spaceflight chief Kathy Lueders called it "a pretty exciting hour." 

Communication between the ISS crew and ground control was briefly lost twice, once for four minutes and then for seven minutes, but the space travelers aboard the station don't appear to be fazed by the brief drama, with cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy tweeting: "Dear friends, I’m reading your numerous comments. Don’t worry! Our work at the International @Space_Station to integrate the newly arrived #Nauka module continues!" before adding that the planned opening of the hatch to the module is expected to go ahead today. 

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There is, however, one knock-on from the mishap: NASA and Boeing have pushed back today's uncrewed test flight of Boeing's Starliner capsule, which will one day carry astronauts to space.

"We wanted to give the ISS program time to assess what had happened today, to determine the cause and make sure that they were really ready to support the Starliner launch," Steve Stich, the manager of NASA's commercial crew program said in the conference. The earliest opportunity for a new launch is Tuesday, August 3, so watch this space for hopefully a drama-free launch next week.

 


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