Russia’s Nauka module briefly tilts space station with unplanned thruster fire

Editor’s note: This story was updated to include details and comments from a news conference held later on July 29.

Nauka’s bumpy ride to the International Space Station didn’t get any smoother after the new Russian science module docked on Thursday (July 29).

A little over three hours after docking was complete, cosmonauts Oleg Novitsky and Pyotr Dubrov were in the Zvezda module to which Nauka docked, preparing to open the hatch between the two vehicles. Then, at 12:45 p.m. EDT (1645 GMT), thrusters on Nauka fired “inadvertently and unexpectedly,” according to NASA spokesperson Rob Navias. As a result, the space station temporarily lost what engineers call “attitude control,” which is quite rare, Navias noted.

“The crew is not in any danger, never was in any danger and attitude control has been regained,” Navias said during a live broadcast begun after the station regained its position.

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Russia’s Nauka module arrived at the International Space Station on July 29, 2021. (Image credit: NASA TV)

The unplanned thruster firing caused the orbiting laboratory to tilt by about 45 degrees from its proper orientation before the station was able to right itself, Navias said. All told, the station lost attitude control for a total of about 47 minutes, according to NASA officials.

The space station automatically recognized that Nauka’s thrusters were sending the orbiting laboratory askew and ordered the Zvezda module to fire its own thrusters to compensate, a process completed by the robotic Russian Progress 78 cargo ship, which is also docked to the space station.

After the station regained its proper position, Nauka’s overseers in Russia began work to ensure the thrusters would not fire mistakenly again, according to NASA. That command was successfully implemented as the space station flew over command stations in Russia.

Nauka is a long-awaited Russian module that will support science activities, host visiting crew and cargo vehicles and serve as a base for cosmonauts conducting spacewalks. The module launched on July 21 and spent eight days trekking to the station. During this time, Nauka’s handlers troubleshot several issues with the module, including problems with its propulsion system.

The seven astronauts currently living and working on the orbiting laboratory closed the protective shutters on the station during Nauka’s unplanned thruster firings today but were permitted to open them as needed to attempt to observe the situation directly. NASA officials later confirmed that astronauts did see signs that the Nauka module was firing its thrusters.

“The crew did report seeing some debris — some, I think I heard. They mentioned flakes or something; we believe that was from the jet firing,” said Joel Montalbano, NASA’s program manager for the space station.

According to Montalbano, the crew didn’t experience any particular turbulence due to the situation. “We asked the crew, ‘Hey, did the space station shake or anything like that?’ And the response was negative; we didn’t see anything like that.”

At the time of the loss of attitude control, the astronauts were most of the way through their workday, but what tasks remained were mostly canceled to allow the crew to support response to the anomaly, according to communications between NASA’s mission control center in Houston and the space station.

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