The International Space Station was thrown out of control by a software glitch, and may also have been due to lapses in human attention, Russian space officials said on Friday. However, they said it was moving forward to activate the newly attached module at the center of the mishap.
The seven crew members on board the Russian module Nauka was thrown out of its normal flight position 250 miles above Earth as a result of the jet thrusters on Nauka re-igniting.
Spaceflight emergency was declared immediately by the mission flight director as engineers on Earth tried to stabilize the sprawling satellite.
Nasa told reporters on Thursday the station lost its attitude control for 45 minutes while crews at its ground base activated thrusters on another outpost module and a separate cargo ship previously docked at the complex to regain control.
Nasa noted that at that time, Earth’s orbiting satellite was slowly spinning end over end during that period, equivalent to nearly four rotations per hour.
Additionally, the crew lost communication on two separate occasions during the emergency.
Russian space agency Energia’s designer general, Vladimir Solovyov, reassured international partners on Friday that the incident had been contained and that scientists would have Nauka running soon – the Russian word meaning “science” – up and running.
“A short-term software failure led to the incorrect activation of the engines of the module at the time of withdrawal, resulting in modifications to the orientation of the complex in general,” he said in a press 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.”
According to Roscosmos’s director, Dmitry Rogozin, lack of attention on the part of humans could have caused the accident.
As quoted by Komsomolskaya Pravda, “the docking was going well, but also there was a human factor involved. There was euphoria (after successful docking), that relaxed everyone”, he said.
As far as NASA and Roscosmos were concerned, the seven astronauts aboard – two Russians, two American, two Japanese, and one French – were never in immediate danger.
It was also reported that both agencies clarified the situation relatively soon and there were no apparent damages to the space station. In the 20-plus-year history of the orbiting laboratory, however, NASA’s space station program manager Joel Montalbano could recall just two or three occasions when a docked vehicle’s thrusters misfired like that.
Boeing Co’s Starliner space capsule’s launch on a highly anticipated, un-crewed test flight to the International Space Station was also delayed due to the mishap. It has now been tentatively moved back to August 3, from Friday, which was originally scheduled for Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Russia’s Oleg Novitsky, who is on board, posted a message on Twitter to assuage his followers’ concerns.
“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!”
As part of ensuring continued safety, Russian specialists are performing remote checks on Nauka’s engines to ensure the station remains on its normal flight path.
Module docking was deemed successful by the message.
The Russian space agency’s head, Rogozin, described Nauka’s arrival as an “extraordinary achievement” and received congratulations from rocket entrepreneur Elon Musk via Twitter.
A second Russian module will be launched to the station in November, according to Rogozin.
As a result of several mishaps and corruption scandals, Roscosmos had to face charges of embezzlement during the construction of the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s far east.