Serious drama unfolded in low Earth orbit today when the newly arrived Nauka module, for reasons unknown, began to fire its thrusters after docking to the ISS. Mission controllers are now working to control what appears to be an ongoing situation.
Nothing appears to be damaged, and NASA says the crew is safe, but things got really weird about three hours after Russia’s Nauka module reached the International Space Station at 9:29 a.m. EDT this morning.
After the rendezvous and docking, ISS crew members went to work, checking for leaks at the interface point, opening the hatch, and integrating computers on the newly arrived Nauka module, also known as the Russian Multipurpose Laboratory.
Suddenly and without warning, at around 12:45 p.m. EDT, Nauka’s thrusters unexpectedly and inadvertently began to fire. This caused the ISS to lose attitude control to the tune of 45 degrees, according to a livestream on NASA TV. It is not yet known what caused the situation to happen. One possibility is that Nauka’s computers thought it was still docking, resulting in the thrusters being fired, but that’s not confirmed.
Flight controllers re-oriented the space station by performing a counterbalancing “roll control” procedure. They did this by firing thrusters on the Russian Zvezda module and a Progress cargo ship currently docked to the ISS. This recovery effort worked, and the ISS has returned to its normal orientation. The station is now back in full attitude control, and no damage or injuries to crew members have been reported. NASA went on to say that crew members were never in any danger during the incident.
At one point, Drew Morgan from NASA mission control asked the astronauts to look outside to see if they could spot any debris floating around, or if they could see any damage to the station. NASA says the ISS is currently in a stable configuration, and recovery operations are ongoing.
This work, it should be pointed out, is being done with a partially fueled Nauka docked to the station, so the thrusters could still go into action. UPDATE 3:49 p.m. EDT: According to Anatoly Zak, a reporter with Russian Space Web, Nauka has burned through all its propellent, so the threat of further firings by the thrusters seems to have passed.
Rumors are already swirling that tomorrow’s launch of an uncrewed Boeing Starliner will be canceled as a result of this incident. UPDATE: 3:54 p.m. EDT: It’s official: Friday’s launch of Starliner has been canceled. We are now awaiting a new date for lift off.
Regular activities for the day have been canceled at the ISS as the crew and mission controllers on the surface continue to monitor the situation. Again, it’s not known why Nauka’s thrusters began to fire, and an investigation is now pending. This is unfolding incident, and we will update this article as we learn more.