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Russia blames software failure for 'unexpected' ISS module thruster firing

In a hair-raising event, the Nauka module pushed the International Space Station out of orientation for a time.

The Russian-built Nauka module approached the ISS for docking.

Oleg Novitskiy/Roscosmos

First, the good news. The Russian-built Nauka laboratory successfully docked with the International Space Station on Thursday morning. Now, the not-so-good news: Nauka "inadvertently and unexpectedly" fired its thrusters after docking, causing the ISS to lose attitude control (aka control over its orientation). On Friday, Russian space agency Roscosmos pointed to a "short-term software failure" as the culprit.

The Roscosmos statement -- attributed to ISS Russian segment flight director Vladimir Solovyov -- said the docking mechanics worked reliably, but "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."

According to NASA TV updates, the station went out of orientation by about 45 degrees. Thrusters built into a service module, and a Russian Progress spacecraft docked to the station, were able to correct the problem and bring the ISS back under control. 

There are seven crew members on board from NASA, Japanese space agency JAXA, the European Space Agency and Roscosmos. "Recovery operations have regained attitude and the crew is in no danger," NASA tweeted Thursday.

The new module had experienced technical challenges, including issues with its thrusters, since it launched just over a week ago.

Nauka is designed as a science lab, a docking port for spacecraft and an airlock for cosmonauts going on spacewalks. Roscosmos released the 20-year-old Pirs module from the ISS to burn up in the atmosphere and make room for the new addition.

The thruster glitch shook up at least one other scheduled ISS launch. Boeing had planned to launch its Starliner spacecraft to the ISS on Friday, but that has now been pushed back to no earlier than Aug. 3. The uncrewed Starliner mission is a test flight meant to show that the spacecraft can safely travel to and from the ISS.

NASA reports that all ISS systems are operating normally. The crew's schedules for Thursday were scrubbed while the team focused on working through any issues with Nauka. 

According to Roscomos, the crew is conducting operations that will allow for the opening of the hatch between Nauka and ISS. If all goes well, it will be back to science as usual up in orbit. 

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