Cargo Ship Fails To Dock With Space Station

An unmanned Russian cargo ship scheduled to dock with the International Space Station missed the station today by about two miles. The station lost contact with the ship a few minutes before the planned docking. A faulty data link is being blamed. Luckily, the supplies weren't critical, and another attempt to dock may be made this weekend. Melissa Block talks with NPR's Joe Palca about the incident.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Now to a problem in space. Today, a Russian cargo ship carrying oxygen, water and spare parts was supposed to dock with the International Space Station. Instead, it sailed right by the station, leaving engineers on Earth scratching their heads.

NPR science correspondent Joe Palca is following the story. He joins me here in the studio.

Joe, this doesn't sound good. Is the crew on the space station in danger?

JOE PALCA: No, there's no danger to the crew. This cargo ship sailed by with a margin of about two miles, so they were never in any danger at all.

BLOCK: Well, what was supposed to happen? What went wrong?

PALCA: Well, what was supposed to happen was this was a cargo ship that was launched from Kazakhstan on Wednesday, and this is typical. They carry up supplies, as you said, water and various things like that. It docks with the space station, which means it forms a link and then they make - they carry the stuff back and forth.

Well, the cargo ship has a data connection to the space station, and for some reason , that radio data connection didn't happen, didn't work. And so the cargo ship said, well, I can't dock. I don't know what's going on. And it just sailed right on by.

BLOCK: The cargo ship is manned or unmanned?

PALCA: Unmanned.

BLOCK: Okay. And why did the data link fail, do you know?

PALCA: You said they were scratching their heads. That's why they're scratching their heads. They don't know. If this system is broken, if it doesn't work at all, there is a backup system. But they're still trying to figure out what I heard them discussing, you know, the engineers on Earth talking to the engineers on the space station. And right now they're, you know, they're going through the checklist, what could have happened. But they don't have an answer right now.

BLOCK: Okay, we mentioned oxygen, water, spare parts on this cargo ship. What else?

PALCA: Yeah, it's experimental hardware. It's propellant to keep the space station in the proper orbit. But the NASA people I talked with today said this was not critical cargo. This was not stuff that the space station is waiting for. They were supplied a few days or weeks ago, and this is something they were looking forward to having as spares. So they're not too fussed about it right now.

BLOCK: Meantime, though, this cargo ship has sailed by. Where is it going?

PALCA: Well, this is the interesting thing. So it's just gone by, but it's not going faster or slower. It's just in a slightly different orbit from the space station. So basically, they have to wait. They think it'll be about 48 hours before what's called the orbital mechanics, the two orbits, link up again, and then they'll be close enough to try again, presuming they figure out what went wrong.

BLOCK: Okay, NPR science correspondent Joe Palca, thanks so much.

PALCA: You're welcome.

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