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Russia blames software glitch for misfired engines that shoved ISS

Nauka’s software thought it was time to back away from the space station

Russia’s Nauka module (left) docked to the International Space Station
Roscosmos

Russia’s space agency blamed a “short-term software failure” for yesterday’s engine mishap with its new science module. The module’s thrusters unexpectedly fired hours after docking, shifting the International Space Station off its normal position. The software glitch caused the Nauka module to think it was supposed to back away from the station.

The space station, a football field-sized research laboratory floating 270 miles up in low-Earth orbit, was shoved 45 degrees off track once Nauka’s thrusters started firing. NASA said it lost control of the station’s positioning minutes later, but it was eventually repositioned back to normal after thrusters from another Russian module counteracted Nauka’s errant firings.

“Due to a short-term software failure, a direct command was mistakenly implemented to turn on the module’s engines for withdrawal, which led to some modification of the orientation of the complex as a whole,” Vladimir Solovyov, the flight director of the space station’s Russian segment said in a statement Friday morning.

Roscosmos will lead the investigation into the erroneous thruster firings and keep its US partners posted on any fixes, NASA’s space station manager Joel Montalbano told reporters on Thursday. The mishap forced a delay to Boeing’s planned launch of its uncrewed Starliner capsule to the ISS, which was slated for Friday at 2:53PM ET and is now planned for Tuesday, August 3rd at 1:20PM ET, the agency said in a statement.

The space station and its new Russian module are “operating normally” now, Solovyov said, adding that “a reliable internal power and command interface was created, as well as a power supply interface that connected the module to the station.” He said the station’s Russian cosmonauts Oleg Novitskiy and Pyotr Dubrov are balancing the pressure in Nauka and plan to enter the module to start “purifying the atmosphere and begin normal regular work.”

Nauka, which means science in Russian, is a multipurpose science module designed to hold cargo and humans. Its long-delayed development began in 1995 and has gone through several design changes that pushed its original launch date of 2007 to 2021. It finally launched July 21st. Upon reaching space, it almost immediately encountered propulsion and communications issues that delayed its insertion into orbit. The module docked successfully eight days later, on Thursday, before its thrusters glitched out and shoved the station off-track.