The International Space Station is stable and the astronauts on board are safe after a new Russian module began firing its engines without prompting, causing the station to shift in space, according to NASA officials.
The planned launch of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft to the ISS on Friday from Florida has been delayed to next week due to the mishap and an investigation into the incident is underway.
The Russian lab module docked with the space station Thursday morning after launching from Baikonur, Kazakhstan, eight days ago. The 22-ton Nauka module will serve as the new Russian laboratory for experiments.
The launch of Nauka, also called the Multipurpose Laboratory Module or MLM, had been repeatedly delayed because of technical problems. It was initially scheduled to go up in 2007. In 2013, experts found contamination in its fuel system, resulting in a long and costly replacement. Other Nauka systems also underwent modernization or repairs.
However, after docking the module’s thrusters began unexpectedly firing, moving the station about 45 degrees, according to NASA. After quick recovery operations, the station is now back at the proper positioning in space.
Joel Montalbano, NASA’s International Space Station Program manager, mission control noticed around 11:34 p.m. CT the ISS attitude was diverging from normal.
The crew reported and teams were able to see from mission control the Nauka module jets were firing which was the cause of the deviation in attitude. To correct the issue, the service module engines were fired to right the space station.
By 12:29 p.m. CT the space station attitude was back in order.
The space station flies at a certain attitude for several reasons, according to Montalbano, including communications with satellites in order to talk to the crew and to direct sunlight to the solar arrays that power the space station.
“So when you lose attitude, and you’re in a different attitude than your plan all that’s changing,” Montalbano said. “So maybe you don’t have the same communication opportunities that you had when you were in the standard attitude. You risk some things getting too warm or too cold ... we have heaters on a lot of things that to address that ... but you know you have a plan that you fly, and you’d like to maintain that.”
During the random thruster firing, NASA lost communication with the crew on the space station “on the order of minutes,” Montalbano said.
There are currently seven astronauts onboard the station: three American, one Japanese, one European and two Russian. NASA Commercial Crew Program Manager Steve Stitch said if there was a threat to their safety the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft docked at the station could have been powered up within minutes.
“Should they ever need to get in Dragon and depart for whatever reason they can get in that spacecraft, and they can power it up on their own very quickly,” Stitch said. “It can obtain the required navigation information from the space station and be able to depart on its own.”
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson tweeted about the mishap Thursday afternoon and expressed gratitude for the team members on Earth who work to keep the astronauts in space safe.
It takes thousands of people on the ground to ensure the safety of the @Space_Station and crew. The @NASA family’s ingenuity and dedication never cease to amaze me and, on days like this one, I’m more thankful than ever for their unparalleled expertise. https://t.co/5RtRG0VrIY— Bill Nelson (@SenBillNelson) July 29, 2021
Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, will lead the investigation into the random engine firing and NASA will review the ISS structure to determine if there is any damage. Montalbano estimated the initial “quick look” at the incident could be done by Friday evening.
NASA officials said it needs to determine if it’s safe to fly Starliner to the ISS before attempting to dock. ULA was set to launch Starliner at 2:53 p.m. Friday from Cape Canaveral but the situation on the ISS caused NASA to cancel the liftoff.
“We decided that it would not be smart to go launch the OFT-2 mission tomorrow,” Stitch said. “We wanted to give the ISS program time to assess what had happened today, determine the cause, and make sure that they were really ready to support the Starliner launch and the OFT-2 mission.”
The uncrewed launch would mark the first time the Starliner would dock at the space station. It’s the final test before NASA gives Boeing the OK to launch NASA astronauts.
During a teleconference with reporters Thursday afternoon, officials said the next launch attempt is scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 3 at 1:20 p.m. There is an additional backup window on Wednesday.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.