Russia blames software failure after ISS briefly thrown off course

This image dated July 29, 2021 provided by NASA shows the 20-metric-ton Nauka module, also called the Multipurpose Laboratory Module as it approaches the International Space Station space station. (NASA VIA AP)

MOSCOW – Russia on Friday blamed a software failure for an incident that briefly knocked the International Space Station (ISS) off course and said it was pressing ahead with work to activate a newly-attached module at the center of the episode.

The ISS was thrown off track on Thursday after the engines of the Russian Nauka, or “science”, research module roared into life about three hours after it had latched on.

Vladimir Solovyov, designer general at Energia, a Russian space agency company, sought to reassure international partners that the incident had been contained and said cosmonauts would have it up and running soon.

The crew is now busy balancing the pressure in the Nauka module. In the afternoon, the crew will open the hatches, enter the module, turn on the necessary means of purifying the atmosphere and begin normal regular work.

Vladimir Solovyov, designer general at Energia

"Due to a short-term software failure, a direct command was mistakenly implemented to turn on the module's engines for withdrawal, which led to some modification of the orientation of the complex as a whole," he said in a statement.

"The crew is now busy balancing the pressure in the Nauka module. In the afternoon, the crew will open the hatches, enter the module, turn on the necessary means of purifying the atmosphere and begin normal regular work."

The seven crew members aboard – two Russian cosmonauts, three NASA astronauts, a Japanese astronaut and a European space agency astronaut from France – were never in any immediate danger, according to NASA.

'Don't worry!'

Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitsky, who is on board, on Friday told his followers on Twitter not to worry.

"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! Tonight we are going to open the hatches. Will keep you posted!"

Roscosmos, Russia's space agency, said checks on Nauka's engines were being completed remotely by Russian specialists to ensure everyone's safety and that the ISS was on its normal flight trajectory.

It said that the docking had been successful in so far as the seal between the new module and the rest of the ISS was hermetic.

Dmitry Rogozin, head of Roscosmos, had hailed Nauka's docking with the ISS the previous day as "a very difficult and important victory for us" and warmly accepted congratulations on Twitter from space entrepreneur Elon Musk.

Rogozin also spoke of plans to launch another Russian module to the ISS in November.

Roscosmos has suffered a series of mishaps and corruption scandals, including during the construction of the Vostochny Cosmodrome in the country's far east where contractors were accused of embezzling state funds.

Thursday’s mishap began about three hours after the multipurpose Nauka module had latched onto the space station, as mission controllers in Moscow were performing some post-docking “reconfiguration” procedures, according to NASA.

The module’s jets inexplicably restarted, causing the entire station to pitch out of its normal flight position 402.34 km above the Earth, leading the mission’s flight director to declare a “spacecraft emergency,” US space agency officials said.

An unexpected drift in the station’s orientation was first detected by automated ground sensors, followed 15 minutes later by a “loss of attitude control” that lasted a little over 45 minutes, according to Joel Montalbano, manager of NASA’s space station program.

'Tug-of-war'

Flight teams on the ground managed to restore the space station’s orientation by activating thrusters on another module of the orbiting platform, NASA officials said.

In its broadcast coverage of the incident, RIA cited NASA specialists at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, as describing the struggle to regain control of the space station as a “tug of war” between the two modules.

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At the height of the incident, the station was pitching out of alignment at the rate of about a half a degree per second, Montalbano said during a NASA conference call with reporters.

The Nauka engines were ultimately switched off, the space station was stabilized and its orientation was restored to where it had begun, NASA said.

Communication with the crew was lost for several minutes twice during the disruption, but “there was no immediate danger at any time to the crew,” Montalbano said. He said “the crew really didn’t feel any movement.”

Had the situation become so dangerous as to require evacuation of personnel, the crew could have escaped in a SpaceX crew capsule still parked at the outpost and designed to serve as a “lifeboat” if necessary, said Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s commercial crew program.

Montalbano said there was no immediate sign of any damage to the space station. The flight correction maneuvers used up more propellant reserves than desired, “but nothing I would worry about,” he said.

After its launch last week from Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome, the module experienced a series of glitches that raised concern about whether the docking procedure would go smoothly.

The Nauka module is designed to serve as a research lab, storage unit and airlock that will upgrade Russia’s capabilities aboard the ISS.

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Thursday's malfunction prompted NASA to postpone until at least Aug 3 its planned launch of Boeing’s new CST-100 Starliner capsule on a highly anticipated uncrewed test flight to the space station. The Starliner had been set to blast off atop an Atlas V rocket on Friday from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.