a-recent-launch-failure-presented-an-unsettling-possibility-for-humankinds-home-above-earth

A recent launch failure presented an unsettling possibility for humankind’s home above Earth

In November 2000, some 250 miles above Earth, a capsule carrying one American and two Russians docked to the International Space Station (ISS). A hatch leading to their new living quarters swung open, and the crew members floated in and got to work. They hooked up cables and computers for easy communication with the ground. They installed life-support systems to maintain breathable air. They activated the toilet. For the next four months, the ISS was their home. space science universe and space station alien science

Over the years, crews came and went, sourced first from the United States and Russia, and then from Japan, Germany, Italy, France, Canada, and other countries. New pressurized modules and other hardware arrived, growing the station in size and scope. So did science experiments spanning a myriad of fields, prepared by researchers eager to learn how stuff works in zero gravity. space science universe and space station alien science

One thing hasn’t changed in the past 18 years: There have always been people on board. When one crew departed, another remained inside, waving through the thick glass windows as it watched the capsule descend to Earth. space science universe and space station alien science

This fall, that guarantee seemed to be in jeopardy. space science universe and space station alien science

The trouble began back on Earth, at a launch facility in Kazakhstan for ferrying people to and from the ISS. On October 11, the American astronaut Nick Hague and the Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin wriggled into a small capsule atop a rocket and blasted off into the sky. Minutes into their flight, the launch vehicle’s computers detected a malfunction in the rocket and automatically triggered abort procedures. The crew capsule was shoved away from the rocket and parachuted safely to the ground. space science universe and space station alien science

Rescue teams scooped up the crew members, and Russia, which operates the launch system, opened an investigation into the incident, the first launch failure of a crewed Soyuz mission in 35 years. None of the world’s space travelers—from the United States, Russia, or elsewhere—would fly until the Soyuz system was deemed safe, officials said. space science universe and space station alien science

Three remained, however, on the ISS: Serena Auñón-Chancellor of the United States, Sergey Prokopyev of Russia, and Alexander Gerst of Germany. The trio arrived in June. They’re scheduled to leave in mid-December, when the Soyuz capsule responsible for transporting them reaches its time limit for remaining in space. Hague and Ovchinin were supposed to be on board to see them off. space science universe and space station alien science

The emergency landing created an unsettling question: What if the trio comes home before another crew goes up? space science universe and space station alien science

“We want to have people living and working there, so that would be a disappointment,” said Kjell Lindgren, a nasa astronaut who resided on the ISS in 2015 and part of the backup crew for future SpaceX missions to the station, in an interview. “It would be a very new thing for us not to have someone on the space station.” space science universe and space station alien science

It’s important to note that the ISS doesn’t depend on the presence of a crew to fly. Mission controllers on the ground can operate the station as it coasts through space, traveling at an average speed of 17,500 miles an hour. ISS systems are built to be redundant; a failure of one of several identical systems doesn’t signal a major catastrophe. If necessary, Russia can also deliver uncrewed Progress capsules to dock to the ISS and, as has been done in the past, fire their thrusters to elevate the station, keeping it in its usual orbit. space science universe and space station alien science

Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, completed its investigation of the incident last week. It concluded that the problem had originated with one of the engines on the Soyuz rocket and could be fixed for future launches. It has set the next crewed launch to the ISS for December 3, 10 days before the current crew is scheduled to depart. If the schedule sticks, the space agencies won’t have to face the possibility of an empty ISS. space science universe and space station alien science

But just in case, before Russia finished its investigation, nasa spent several weeks preparing for the possibility of leaving the ISS unoccupied. The space agency has a “de-crew” document for this scenario, which instructs the departing astronauts to make sure systems are running fine, install backups, and top off science experiments. “We primarily focus on what actions the crew would need to take in order to leave the station in an optimal configuration for the ground-control team until we are able to return crew onboard,” said Kenny Todd, the station’s mission-operations-integration manager. space science universe and space station alien science

But nasa’s protocols don’t specify exactly how long the ISS could theoretically operate without a crew. “I don’t believe we have a defined time limit,” Todd said. space science universe and space station alien science

Prev1 of 3Next

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *