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International Space Station thrown out of control by misfire of Russian module - NASA

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The Nauka (Science) Multipurpose Laboratory Module is seen docked to the International Space Station (ISS) on July 29, 2021. Oleg Novitskiy/Roscosmos/Handout via REUTERS
The Nauka (Science) Multipurpose Laboratory Module is seen during its docking to the International Space Station (ISS) on July 29, 2021. Oleg Novitskiy/Roscosmos/Handout via REUTERS

The International Space Station (ISS) was thrown briefly out of control on Thursday (29 July) when jet thrusters of a newly arrived Russian research module inadvertently fired a few hours after it was docked to the orbiting outpost, NASA officials said, write Steve Gorman and Polina Ivanova.

The seven crew members aboard - two Russian cosmonauts, three NASA astronauts, a Japanese astronaut and a European space agency astronaut from France - were never in any immediate danger, according to NASA and Russian state-owned news agency RIA.

But the malfunction prompted NASA to postpone until at least 3 August its planned launch of Boeing's (BA.N) new CST-100 Starliner capsule on a highly anticipated uncrewed test flight to the space station. The Starliner had been set to blast off atop an Atlas V rocket on Friday from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

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Thursday's mishap began about three hours after the multipurpose Nauka module had latched onto the space station, as mission controllers in Moscow were performing some post-docking "reconfiguration" procedures, according to NASA.

The module's jets inexplicably restarted, causing the entire station to pitch out of its normal flight position some 250 miles above the Earth, leading the mission's flight director to declare a "spacecraft emergency," U.S. space agency officials said.

An unexpected drift in the station's orientation was first detected by automated ground sensors, followed 15 minutes later by a "loss of attitude control" that lasted a little over 45 minutes, according to Joel Montalbano, manager of NASA's space station program.

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Flight teams on the ground managed to restore the space station's orientation by activating thrusters on another module of the orbiting platform, NASA officials said.

In its broadcast coverage of the incident, RIA cited NASA specialists at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, as describing the struggle to regain control of the space station as a "tug of war" between the two modules.

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 during a NASA conference call with reporters.

The Nauka engines were ultimately switched off, the space station was stabilized and its orientation was restored to where it had begun, NASA said.

Communication with the crew was lost for several minutes twice during the disruption, but "there was no immediate danger at any time to the crew," Montalbano said. He said "the crew really didn't feel any movement."

Had the situation become so dangerous as to require evacuation of personnel, the crew could have escaped in a SpaceX crew capsule still parked at the outpost and designed to serve as a "lifeboat" if necessary, said Steve Stich, manager of NASA's commercial crew program.

What caused the malfunction of the thrusters on the Nauka module, delivered by the Russian space agency Roscosmos, has yet to be determined, NASA officials said.

Montalbano said there was no immediate sign of any damage to the space station. The flight correction maneuvers used up more propellant reserves than desired, "but nothing I would worry about," he said.

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.

Roscosmos attributed Thursday's post-docking 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.

The Nauka module is designed to serve as a research lab, storage unit and airlock that will upgrade Russia's capabilities aboard the ISS.

A live broadcast showed the module, named after the Russian word for "science," docking with the space station a few minutes later than scheduled.

"According to telemetry data and reports from the ISS crew, the onboard systems of the station and the Nauka module are operating normally," Roscosmos said in a statement.

"There is contact!!!" Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos, wrote on Twitter moments after the docking.

European Space Agency

'Ever congested' space must be tackled, says satellite launch company

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The world's leading satellite launch company has called for new rules to combat dangers posed by an “ever congested” space.” The Ariane Group says a “rules book” is needed to tackle the issue to stop space becoming “dangerously congested”.

It is estimated that the average individual uses 47 satellites every day and that, by 2025, the number of satellites in space will increase five fold.

The effectiveness and safety satellites is being compromised by the huge amount of debris also flying around in space, says Ariane.

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It wants to see new rules introduced to help control “space traffic” and stop the number of collisions from increasing yet further.

At a recent briefing, an Ariane spokesman said, “we have such rules for road and air safety so why not for space?”

There are over 1,500 satellites in space, mostly for civil and military use and 600 were launched last year alone.

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The spokesman said, “Space is becoming more and more congested and all the debris flying around is turning space into a bin.

“This greatly increases the risk and likelihood of potentially very damaging collisions. This matters because if an expensive satellite is hit and breaks up it can no longer operate.”

It is estimated a satellite costs from between €100m and €400m. Their use and value has, says Ariane, more important than ever across a range of fields, including for the military as well as for observational, civil and navigation uses.

Meanwhile, the Group, a joint venture of the European aerospace company Airbus and the French group Safran, has  generally welcomed the EU’s renewed commitment to space, security and defence.

In a recent speech to MEPs, commission president Ursula von der Leyen said it is "vital" for the European Union to "step up" on intelligence cooperation.

The Ariane Group spokesman said, “We welcome her comments in her state of the union address but we want to see actions, not just words.”

“Europe is resetting its ambitions for space and that is a good thing.”

In her speech, von der Leyen said, "We need a common assessment of the threats we face and a common approach to dealing with them.”

She also announced that the French presidency of the EU will convene a summit on European defence. 

She said the bloc should consider its "own joint situational awareness centre" and waiving VAT when buying defence equipment "produced and produced in Europe" which would help "decrease our dependencies of today". 

The issue of a joint European defence is divisive with some member states, particularly Eastern and Baltic countries, opposing the prospect of the EU's military autonomy because they argue the overlap would weaken the NATO alliance, an assessment also shared by Washington.

From 2021 to 2027, the EU is poised to funnel almost €8 billion into its new EDF The programme doesn't entail the establishment of an EU army and is simply focused on supporting cross-border research and development in the field of defence.

On cyber-defence, she called for member states to "bundle" their resources.

"If everything is collected, everything can be hacked," she said.

"It is time for Europe to step up to the next level."

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