THE International Space Station (ISS) was thrown briefly out of control on Thursday after a module fired its thrusters by mistake.
The newly arrived Russian research capsule suffered the hair-raising fault a few hours after it was docked to the orbiting outpost, Nasa officials said.
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The seven crew members aboard were never in any immediate danger, according to Nasa and Russian state-owned news agency RIA.
The group is made up of two Russian cosmonauts, three Nasa astronauts, a Japanese astronaut and a European space agency astronaut from France.
The malfunction prompted Nasa to postpone until at least August 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 Centre in Florida.
Thursday's mishap began about three hours after the multipurpose Nauka module had latched onto the space station.
Mission controllers in Moscow were performing some post-docking "reconfiguration" procedures at the time, according to Nasa.
The module's jets inexplicably restarted, causing the entire station to pitch out of its normal flight position some 250 miles above the Earth.
The incident led the mission's flight director to declare a "spacecraft emergency," U.S. space agency officials said.
An unexpected drift in the station's orientation was first detected by automated ground sensors.
The drift was 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.
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.
What caused the malfunction of the thrusters on the Nauka module, delivered by the Russian space agency Roscosmos, has yet to be determined, Nasa officials said.
Montalbano said there was no immediate sign of any damage to the space station.
What is the ISS?
Here’s what you need to know about the International Space Station…
- The International Space Station, often abbreviated to ISS, is a large space craft that orbits Earth and houses astronauts who go up there to complete scientific missions
- Many countries worked together to build it and they work together to use it
- It is made up of many pieces, which astronauts had to send up individually on rockets and put together from 1998 to 2000
- Ever since the year 2000, people have lived on the ISS
- Nasa uses the station to learn about living and working in space
- It is approximately 250 miles above Earth and orbits around the planet just like a satellite
- Living inside the ISS is said to be like living inside a big house with five bedrooms, two bathrooms, a gym, lots of science labs and a big bay window for viewing Earth
The flight correction manoeuvres 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.
Roscosmos attributed Thursday's post-docking issue to Nauka's engines having to work with residual fuel in the craft, TASS news agency reported.
"The process of transferring the Nauka module from flight mode to 'docked with ISS' mode is underway. Work is being carried out on the remaining fuel in the module," Roscosmos was cited by TASS as saying.
The Nauka module is designed to serve as a research lab, storage unit and airlock that will upgrade Russia's capabilities aboard the ISS.
A live broadcast showed the module, named after the Russian word for "science," docking with the space station a few minutes later than scheduled.
"According to telemetry data and reports from the ISS crew, the onboard systems of the station and the Nauka module are operating normally," Roscosmos said in a statement.
"There is contact!!!" Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos, wrote on Twitter moments after the docking.
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