Russia’s newly launched International Space Station module Nauka is still in the fight as of Friday afternoon, as early reports indicate that the module’s backup engines have fired successfully. That’s a big relief for Roscosmos, which nearly saw its long-awaited module become a tragic piece of space trivia instead of the newest piece of the International Space Station. But it’s not out of the woods yet.
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The first glitch in Nauka’s journey happened yesterday, when the spacecraft didn’t complete its first orbit-raising burn. This meant that the uncrewed Nauka wasn’t on track to actually intercept the ISS, which it’s scheduled to dock with on Thursday, July 29. The problem was attributed to a software issue in a computer aboard Nauka, which prevented the spacecraft’s main engines from firing. Nauka’s team was able to manage a remote course correction, but a second bout of course corrections were deemed necessary, and scheduled for today. One early report from journalist Anatoly Zak indicated that one of the spacecraft’s engines sputtered back to life in a mission. The “backup engine seems to have fired fine,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, in an email today, though he added that the status of the engines was not yet certain and it would likely be a few hours before a new dataset from Nauka verified the situation.
The thrusters are just one piece of the engineering puzzle, so the new module is hardly home free. Nauka’s also been having issues with one antenna and its docking target, and its uncertain how those issues will affect docking attempts, SpaceNews reported. “Apparently there is still an issue with the Kurs rendezvous system, and that is pretty critical for docking,” McDowell said, adding that the spacecraft’s TORU system—which allows the astronauts aboard the ISS assist with the docking—is working normally.
For now, the Pirs docking compartment is currently sitting in Nauka’s assigned dock on the ISS. Pirs’ scheduled undocking to make way for the new module was postponed from Friday to Sunday, according to RussianSpaceWeb.
“It is not unusual for complex spacecraft to have teething troubles. However, the number and severity of problems on this flight is above the norm, and perhaps this is not too surprising given the long delays in the development of the vehicle. Nevertheless, I am moderately optimistic that they will eventually complete a successful docking, although not necessarily on the first attempt,” McDowell said.
Keep your eyes on this spacecraft. There’s certainly a twist or two left in this tale.