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NASA Attempt to Boost Space Station Cuts Off Unexpectedly

A five-minute test only lasted for five seconds.

Diagram of the ISS showing where spacecraft, including the Cygnus-17 cargo craft, are docked.
A diagram of the ISS shows where all the current spacecraft are docked. The Cygnus-17 cargo craft attempted to reboost the station, but the test cut off extremely early.
NASA

The International Space Station sometimes has to shift its path to stay in the right orbit or to avoid debris (like it did last week). Usually, the ISS crew calls on Russian equipment to provide the thrust for the adjustments, but NASA tried to use a Northrop Grumman Cygnus cargo craft in a "reboost" test on Monday. It didn't go as planned.

Cygnus-17 was supposed to fire its engine for a little over 5 minutes, but the firing aborted after just 5 seconds. In a statement on Monday, NASA said the "the cause for the abort is understood and under review," but didn't elaborate on what happened. 

The ISS flies in a low Earth orbit, and the planet's atmosphere is constantly dragging on it. Regular reboosts help the station stay in orbit. "The reboost is designed to provide Cygnus with an enhanced capability for station operations as a standard service for NASA," the space agency said.

Back in 2018, NASA performed a short test of an ISS reboost maneuver with a different Cygnus spacecraft, but there's a little more importance to the operation this time around. Russian cosmonauts and American and European astronauts are getting along just fine on the ISS, but there are tensions on the ground due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. It makes sense for NASA to have a way to adjust the station's orbit that doesn't rely on Russian gear. 

SpaceX founder Elon Musk suggested in February that SpaceX's Dragon capsules could also handle reboost duties if needed.

The Cygnus-17 spacecraft was used to transport cargo to the ISS. The crew emptied it and then repacked it with trash and discarded gear. It will soon depart from the ISS and burn up in Earth's atmosphere, like a space garbage disposal. But first, NASA is hoping to pull off a successful reboost. The do-over could happen as soon as Saturday.