Russia's latest contribution to the International Space Station (ISS), successfully launched yesterday, but appears to have run into problems on orbit.
Dubbed "Nauka" (meaning "Science"), the Multipurpose Laboratory Module predates the ISS itself. Construction started in the late 1990s, and continued in stops and starts during the 21st century.
Launch dates for the lab came and went over subsequent decades. The European Space Agency (ESA) provided a robot arm for the module, which sat in storage as the years passed and the delays piled up. Problems with the propulsion system, contamination in the tanks, and expiration of components all contributed to the arrival date at the ISS moving further into the future.
It was therefore with considerable relief that the hefty module was finally launched into orbit at 14:58 UTC yesterday, 21 July 2021, atop a Proton-M, the first of the year for the heavy-lifter. The Proton-M has been used for the last 20 years. The Proton-K was responsible for launching the Zvezda module of the ISS in 2000.
Like Zvezda, Nauka is to make its way to the ISS using its thrusters to adjust its orbit. The 23-ton module is set to automatically dock to the ISS port vacated by the Pirs docking module, which was added to the ISS in 2001. The docking is set to take place on 29 July.
However, all does not appear to be well aboard the veteran module. While Roscosmos has yet to comment on the matter, it appears problems with propulsion have continued to dog Nauka.
UPDATE: #Nauka's main engines (pictured in operation) are currently out of commission. Specialists are troubleshooting the issue and developing a backup rendezvous plan. The module has ~30 stable orbits at current altitude. EXCLUSIVE DETAILS: https://t.co/KZE3WlnXSu pic.twitter.com/uEAP4irjyi— Anatoly Zak (@RussianSpaceWeb) July 22, 2021
Other technical problems bedevilling the spacecraft include issues with the docking sensors, which could make for a sporty manual rendezvous assuming Nauka's propulsion problems can be resolved.
While The Register's queries to Roscosmos have been met with silence, the undocking of the Pirs module from the ISS has reportedly been moved to Saturday, hinting that plans are being reshuffled while engineers work on the fix.
Options are limited should there indeed only be another 30 or so stable orbits left. It might be possible for the module to reach the ISS using alternative thrusters. More fanciful (and implausible) ideas include somehow bringing forward the next Soyuz launch to dock with and rescue the stricken module.
The alternative would be a possible uncontrolled re-entry of Nauka. With luck, that "backup rendezvous plan" will remove that possibility.
For now we remain hopeful that the issues will be dealt in the coming hours by engineers on the ground and Nauka makes its planned rendezvous with the ISS. ®