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Nauka engines fire unexpectedly after docking; forces cancellation of Starliner launch

The soap opera of the Nauka module to ISS became even more dramatic today when its engines fired unexpectedly after its docking, causing the station to shift in orbit and forcing Russian mission controllers to shut it down and fire other engines to return the station to its proper orbit.

Russia’s Roscosmos space agency attributed the 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.

It appears that because they needed to improvise the rendezvous using different engines, there is more fuel left over in Nauka than expected once it docked, and this needs to be vented safely. Somehow, instead of venting the module ignited the engines.

NASA has subsequently postponed tomorrow’s second unmanned demo launch of Boeing’s manned Starliner capsule until the agency has a clear understanding of the issue and has confirmed that Nauka’s presence is not a serious safety issue.

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  • pawn

    Just imagine being in the space station and then all of a sudden….holy cow!…what the hell was that?!!

    I bet there were some interesting conversations with the ground controllers.

  • Ziggy

    Ground control had to ask them to look out the window and check for damage.

  • Matt in AZ

    I’ve had bad feeling all along that this module would be a poison pill. What will be its next surprise?

  • Patrick Underwood

    Pretty funny considering how the Russians got all excited about Crew Dragon and made their cosmonauts hole up in their Soyuz.

  • Alex Andrite

    More Vodka !

  • Tom

    I wonder how well the Russian docking structures handled those lateral forces. The previous rate of atmosphere leak may soon be fondly remembered as the “good old days”.

  • Richard M

    “What will be its next surprise?”

    The good news, if there is good news, is that Nauka apparently exausted its propellant with this fiasco.

  • pzatchok

    Do we have to keep working with these guys?

  • bob sykes

    On the other hand, Russia and China have manned space programs, and we don’t. We still use Russian rocket engines, even to launch our spy satellites.

    So, yes, if we want to go to space, we have to work with them.

    The real clowns are in NASA and DoD and DoJ….

  • William

    Crew Dragon is the American manned space program

  • Mark

    What are the important science experiments that module Nauka is supposed to perform?

  • Ray Van Dune

    I read that the remainder of the crew “didn’t feel anything” when the thrusters fired unexpectedly. Then I read that the ISS deviated 45 degrees from its normal orientation! Can anyone explain how both those statements can be true?

    Also, won’t there be a reduction in fuel available for normal attitude maintenance due to other systems “fighting” Nauka?

  • wayne

    Interstellar (2014)
    “Docking Scene”

  • Cluebat

    On the other hand, it’s fortuitous that we have a human-rated spacecraft on the launch pad as a contingency.

  • wayne

    Gravity (2013)
    “I hate space!”

  • On the bright side, what an amazing problem to have!

    This sort of thing is going to need to be expected if we ever get a high-traffic, commercial space station. Not every docking (or undocking) is going to go smoothly.

    Granted that ISS is a “previous generation” station that needs to be handled with kid gloves. This could have been much worse if it had broken the docking system and depressurized the whole thing.

  • Milt

    As for why we are working with “these guys,” check out James Oberg’s *Star Crossed Orbits*. It’s well worth a read, and it sheds a great deal of light on why the ISS is what it is today. (Paraphrasing the old saw about real estate, its “Politics, politics, politics” — plus orbital
    mechanics, lol.)

    On the other hand, surely much has been gained by this approach in terms of having to work closely with other people and their technology toward a common goal. Indeed, the folks on the ISS seem to be getting along far better than “reds” and “blues” down here on terra firma.

  • Jerry E Greenwood

    NASA’s statement immediately after this occurrence was “none of the crew members were in danger”. Un-commanded firing of thrusters is a serious problem and NASA brushing it off as no big deal (at least in public statements) worries me. Maybe they don’t want to call out Russian incompetence publicly.

  • Edward

    Ray Van Dune asked: “I read that the remainder of the crew ‘didn’t feel anything’ when the thrusters fired unexpectedly. Then I read that the ISS deviated 45 degrees from its normal orientation! Can anyone explain how both those statements can be true?

    It was not a sudden movement, but the Nauka thrusters fired for 45 minutes, and it took longer for the controllers to stop the motion. You really, REALLY don’t want sudden motions on a structure that large or that flimsy. And, yes, there has been propellant depletion, but much of it seems to be from the Progress spacecraft, so the ISS is not as depleted as it could have been.

    From the article:

    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 hours later in a NASA conference call with reporters.

    So what kind of G load is that on the brand new solar arrays that were just installed? A little math should help. ISS is somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 meters long, and the rotation was half a degree per second, and with acceleration being:

    a = r * w * w (1)

    R = 100 m / 2 = 50 m (2)
    W = 1/2 deg/sec * pi rad / 180 deg = 0.0087 rad / sec (~ 12 minutes per revolution) (3)

    Thus a = 50 m * 0.0087 / sec * 0.0087 / sec = 0.004 m / (sec^2) = 0.0004 G (4)

    Well, that is more than microgravity and is more like milligravity. That may not be too much for the new or the old solar arrays, but the next inspection should tell us more. This is based upon the line that ISS was pitching “out of control,” but yaw motions would result in similarly small accelerations.

    ISS rotates — relative to the universe’s inertial frame — around its long axis approximately once every 90 minutes or about 1/16th degree every second. The solar arrays, of course, are continuously pointed toward the sun, so they rotate once a year, almost 1 degree each day.

    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.

    [*** SARCASM ALERT ***]
    Thank goodness it did go smoothly! There was only one report of being off course an hour out, but that is standard operating procedure, right? Didn’t Dragon do that on its last docking to ISS? No?

    And how about that last minute (literally last minute) switch between the manual TORU system and the automatic KURS docking system. I bet Starliner isn’t that sophisticated, and we already know that Dragon isn’t.

    Then there was the change in plan for approach from the velocity vector (X axis) rather than the original radial velocity vector (R-bar or Z axis) approach.

    The ISS orientation plan for docking was changed to accommodate Nauka’s as-is condition after launch.

    It sounds like when I bought a used car, I had to sign that I was accepting it in “as is condition.”

    Oh, yeah. Smooth. Like Rocky Road ice cream.

    With partners like Roscosmos, who needs enemies? These guys could sink NASA single handedly. I’m pretty sure that there are a whole lot of Russian engineers removing Nauka from their resumes (this sentence is more facetious than sarcastic).

    As they say, better late — and scaring the devil out of the poor engineers and keeping them wondering what problem will rear its ugly head next, and when will that be — than never. After this fiasco, one has to wonder why so many people thought that commercial space couldn’t do as well as governments at operating an unmanned spacecraft in space. Orbital Sciences and SpaceX did just fine. On the other hand, the OldSpace commercial operator didn’t even get this far. Their next attempt at redemption comes up starting Tuesday.

    Well, at least President Clinton was right, and having Russia as a partner on the ISS kept China, Iran, and North Korea from developing rocket technology. That makes this fiasco well worth it. As well as the tremendous extra cost of America’s part of ISS as well as paying for Russia’s part.
    [*** END SARCASM ***]

    I sincerely hope that the problems only exist in the module’s profusion system, its communication system, and in its navigation, guidance, and control system.

  • Edward noted: well, a whole lot of stuff.


  • Edward

    Sottt Manley has a video on this launch, docking, and unexpected thruster firing: (16 minutes)

  • pzatchok


    Do you remember what the inside of the Soyuz craft before NASA needed them?

    We have got nothing except a scary ride out of our partnership with Russia, They have gotten everything from cash to technology. Plus a nice opportunity to use our space station.
    We paid for it so its ours.

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