A recent test to show the capabilities of the Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus NG CRS-17 spacecraft to maneuver the International Space Station (ISS) did not go as planned. The vehicle was supposed to fire for five minutes and one second, but the attempt was aborted after just five seconds.
The spacecraft was being tested for its capabilities to boost the ISS. This is to combat any drag the space station has acquired on its orbit around Earth, using a craft's thrusters to push it back to proper altitude.
Why the test was aborted just five seconds in is unclear and NASA hasn't offered any information yet, though it has said "the cause for the abort is understood and under review.” This has not been shared with the public yet, though it should be released this week.
A second attempt is being discussed for this Saturday, June 25, before the spacecraft travels back to Earth next week. So it’s either now or the next time a Cygnus spacecraft is docked to the ISS.
The purpose of this test was to demonstrate that Cygnus can move the station. The ISS propulsion system can make small adjustments but not major ones, like those needed to raise its orbit or to avoid debris. This happened just last week when the ISS had to avoid the debris caused by a Russian anti-satellite test conducted last year. The crew was not in any danger but the debris was too close for comfort, so the station was moved.
To shift the orbit, the Russian Progress 81 spacecraft fired its thrusters for 4 minutes and 34 seconds. But relying on Russian spacecraft is not currently a sustainable solution. Following the sanctions imposed on Russian officials for the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, the head of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, has threatened to let the ISS fall down from its orbit. So an alternative is being sought.
SpaceX's Dragon Capsule has also been volunteered as an alternative but it has not been tested yet. If Cygnus can do it, it will be the first commercial vehicle to maneuver the ISS.