back to article TERROR in ORBIT: Dodgy rocket burp biffs International Space Station off track

A malfunction on a docked Russian spacecraft caused the International Space Station to shift from its normal orbital orientation, the Russian space agency Roscosmos said on Tuesday. NASA confirmed that the engines of Soyuz TMA-15M – one of two Soyuz spacecraft currently docked at the ISS – unexpectedly fired at 10:27am Central …

  1. Kharkov

    Inspiration for the new TV show, ISS 1999!

    And so the ISS was blasted (slightly, ever so slightly) from its orbit, doomed (no, it isn't) to wander the galaxy (no, it won't) arriving in a new star system every week (are you kidding me?) and meeting english-speaking aliens (now that's just weird, no-one stopped to ask, 'Is this Candid Camera? You guys are putting us on right?') and zooming around in their Eagle spaceships (no, they've got one, or at most two, capsules with surprisingly little delta-V in them).

    And always hoping to one day return home to lost Earth (it isn't lost, just look out the window)

    Hmm, doing your own heckling, what a time-saver!

    1. Little Mouse Silver badge

      Re: Inspiration for the new TV show, ISS 1999!

      If I know my Sci-Fi, the ISS is almost definitely now on a collision course with Mars / Venus / the Sun / the Moon (take your pick).

      And a deadly space organism will probably have hitched a ride too.

      1. Dan 55 Silver badge

        Re: Inspiration for the new TV show, ISS 1999!

        No silly, it's a Russian missile, a bunch of communications satellites, the Hubble, the ISS, George Clooney, and a future Chinese station all in the same orbit.

    2. This post has been deleted by its author

    3. Yugguy

      Re: Inspiration for the new TV show, ISS 1999!

      Space 1999 was brilliant.

      As a kid of the 70s I loved it.

      I sang its theme tune, I had an Eagle transporter model.

      I DON'T CARE how far-fetched it was.

      It was escaping from a council estate to other worlds.

      1. TRT Silver badge

        Re: Inspiration for the new TV show, ISS 1999!

        But... did you glue rice krispies to your eyebrows? Enquiring minds need to know.

    4. stucs201

      Re: So what you mean...

      With regard to that thing that got pushed out of orbit. That thing which for many years we thought was the moon...

      "That's no moon, that's a space-station".

      (Yes, the brown robe with the lightsaber in the pocket)

  2. Mark 85 Silver badge

    I'd be thinking twice about getting into a capsule who's engines fired "unexpectedly". One might end up on the way to some place far, far, away instead of home. I do hope they sort out the cause and can correct it.

    1. Wzrd1

      "I do hope they sort out the cause and can correct it."

      Do remember, a bug with seniority is a feature.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Test Manager says No!

    2. Kharkov

      Engines firing unexpectedly?

      The late, great Douglas Adams had a bit about ships like that.

      'Having seen the vessel, certain words came to mind. 'unsafe', 'dangerous', 'extremely rickety', and 'please may I get out?'

      It's one of those odd things. SpaceX, Boeing and even SNC are making people-carrying-capsules to take crew to ISS & they'll be coming online in 2017/2018 (I wouldn't be surprised if things slipped to the right a bit.) but isn't ISS due to decommission not long after that? As ironies go, it's a bit like James Bond finally getting a female M, modeled on Stella Rimmington, but Dame Stella retired before Judy Dench (another Dame, and a fine old Dame at that) appeared on screen.

      Maybe we need to start speculating on ISS 2.

      ISS 2, The Electric Boogaloo? No, I've got it, ISS 2, This Time It's Personal.

      Or how about ISS 2, Come with me if you want to...

      Alright, I'm going, I'm going...

  3. Anonymous Coward

    Spacesuits with flairs

    Allows the poop to slid more easily into your spaceboots as you climb into one of those Russian capsules.

    1. asdf

      Re: Spacesuits with flairs

      Joke aside I am not an expert by any means but based on what I have seen and heard about astronaut training is they really do a good job of weeding out human beings that basically ever panic under any situation (ie us %99 lol). That guy who didn't panic (and thus didn't die) while his helmet was filling full of water while on a space walk is but one example. They also do have a problem with astronauts doing literally anything to go to space so that they don't even blink about getting aboard ancient Russian spacecraft.

  4. Paul Herber Silver badge

    1,922 seconds?

    1,922 seconds to raise the rocket + space station such a small distance? Not a very powerful rocket or some mistake with the units ... Is it the specific impulse they've quoted?

    1. Smileyvirus

      Re: 1,922 seconds?

      When you're moving something that big and flexible, speed is not desirable.

      Who the hell would want to be in a twanging ISS?

    2. John Robson Silver badge

      Re: 1,922 seconds?

      ISS isn't all that rigid - so a nice gentle thrust (liquid fuels, so easily throttled) means that you get the same deltaV with lower stresses on the structure. Oh, and IIRC better rocket efficiency to boot.

      It's also quite heavy - gravity is about 98% of surface normal, it masses about 370,000 kg.

      To raise it by 2,800m would take....*+2800m+*+9.81m%2Fs%5E2+*.98

      10 GJ

      over 2000 seconds is 5MW

      Not too shabby...

      (Yes I've ingored the required deltaV for the different orbital requirement)

    3. Florida1920

      Re: 1,922 seconds?

      The rocket is slow, but space is patient.

      1. JamesThorpe

        Re: 1,922 seconds?

        One thing I've learnt playing KSP is that if you do a big burn quickly in one place, you'll only lift your orbit up on the far side of the planet. You'd need to burn again over the far side to raise it up where you did the first burn too.

        On the other hand, a long slow burn can do it all in one go.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: 1,922 seconds?

          You have the idea, but it's not the other side, it's 90 degrees displaced (e.g., quadrature).

    4. TheProf Silver badge

      Re: 1,922 seconds?

      1922 seconds? Ah, slightly over 32 minutes. Or half and hour. 1 forty-eighth of a day.

      I'm just trying to get a perspective on the time.

      Now let's see.....distance is...............

    5. BoldMan

      Re: 1,922 seconds?

      Are you sure it wasn't 1,999 seconds?

  5. 0laf Silver badge

    I can understand accidentally calling someone by sitting on a phone.

    I can understand accidentally hitting the indicators when driving

    But 'accidentally' firing the rocket motors on a space capsule attached to the ISS...

    Is there a big red "do not touch" button in NASA HQ that does this?

    1. TRT Silver badge

      It's right next to the one for the coffee machine.

    2. Anonymous Blowhard

      "Is there a big red "do not touch" button in NASA HQ that does this?"

      No, the "Do Not Touch" button is at Roscosmos; the button at NASA is marked "Mess With Russia"...

      1. Little Mouse Silver badge

        True "Big Red Button" story....

        I worked in a datacentre where the Big-Red-DoNotTouch-Button was right next to the light switch.

        Sadly, no one EVER pressed it by mistake, so whilst this is a true story, it's not a particularly interesting one...

        1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

          Re: True "Big Red Button" story....

          I worked in a building that had Big Red Buttons (standard Radiospares product) at intervals along the corridors. They sounded the bomb alert. One day the alarm went off several times with consequent disruption. It was eventually traced to one of the cleaners who decided the the buttons needed polishing.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: True "Big Red Button" story....

            I used to work in the radio industry and there were visual alarms for the Phone - white (they don't ring in the studios) Fire/Evacuation - red and the Obit one - orange. The Obit one (now called the Major Story alarm) went off when someone (The Queen, Queen Mum, Charles, Wills etc.) died and this obviously required your attention. It is delivered by IRN and was peoples worst nightmare that it would go off when they were on air as they then had to everything in the obit procedure correctly and it would be fairly obvious if they hadn't.

            So Easter weekend and the Queen Mum sadly departs this world, IRN were supposed to make everyone aware of the news with the dreaded Obit alarm however the first a lot of people knew that she had gone was when the Saturday 6pm bulletin started with the National Anthem (which should have been at the end of the bulletin anyway). I was later told that there were two buttons at IRN which needed to be pressed simultaneously to activate the alarm and only one of them was correctly pressed, goodness only knows which other one was (incorrectly) hit. Someone a few days later commented to me that they should have just had a big red button that lit up when pressed, under a protective cover so that it wasn't hit accidentally but illuminated so you knew it had been pressed correctly.

            There was a lot of anger from a lot of people that this major event had been fµ©£ed up (there was talk of the work experience being on duty etc.) which was only intensified when the regular Tuesday morning mid morning test of the system went ahead 3 days later.

            1. Simon Harris

              Re: True "Big Red Button" story.... @ Anonymous Coward

              From your story, I think you must have misread the headline as TERROR in OBIT!

              1. asdf

                Re: True "Big Red Button" story.... @ Anonymous Coward

                In the semiconductor industry the big red buttons (EMO button) are found all over the fab but are required on every processing tool. I have never seen on pressed but I guarantee if I did I would be exiting the area in a hurry. Supposedly the tool is supposed to always safely contain the chemicals and gases inside but if you have ever seen a hazmat sheet on things like diborane, HF or silane you might think twice about it. The gas alarms would only serve to let the first responders know where your corpse is located.

        2. Dave 32

          Re: True "Big Red Button" story....

          Sadly, our Big Red Button has been pressed by accident. The first time was by the contractor who was changing the light bulbs in the room. They leaned their ladder up against the wall beside the door, and it pushed the button. A room with a couple of mainframe computers gets awfully quiet when that Big Red Button is pressed. :-(

          The solution was to put a shield around the Big Red Button, so that something leaning up against the wall wouldn't accidentally push it. So, they hired a contractor to install a shield. That contractor brought their ladder in, and leaned it up against the wall beside the door. Uhoh! :-(


          1. ian 22

            Re: True "Big Red Button" story....

            IBM S/370 mainframes had a Big Red Button on their console, meant for emergency power off. I was warned that pushing it would also destroy some hardware bits, so no touchee!

        3. Commenter44655

          Re: True "Big Red Button" story....

          We had a big red "do not touch" button in the data center with no cover on it. On the day of some layoffs, some coworkers went in to discuss the goings on, and one of them leaned against the button on accident.

          Never seen the president of the company move so fast. He thought it was sabotage.

          It quickly received a nice clear cover after that.

      2. Alistair

        "No, the "Do Not Touch" button is at Roscosmos; "

        In Russia button pushes you.

        Sadly the "Do not touch" button in Russia is labelled in .... Swahili.

    3. Simon Harris

      "Is there a big red "do not touch" button in NASA HQ that does this?"

      However a sign did light up afterwards saying "Please do not press this button again".

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      If you'd ever played Kerbal Space Program you'd know just how easy it was to unintentionally stage....

      Now why exactly did I just hit the space-bar?

    5. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Flight into terror

      "Is there a big red "do not touch" button"

      Is one of the astronauts called Dougal McGuire by any chance?

      1. Alister

        Re: Flight into terror

        Is one of the astronauts called Dougal McGuire by any chance?

        Douglas, Shirley?

        1. PNGuinn

          Re: Flight into terror


    6. cray74

      Shuttle's Accidental Thruster Firings

      "But 'accidentally' firing the rocket motors on a space capsule attached to the ISS..."

      This was a persistent fear about the shuttle on station missions. Apparently, NASA reckoned there was a 1-in-10,000 (or less) chance of the shuttle's thrusters accidentally firing while docked. There had been 5 accidental thruster firings in free space prior to the station missions, where the loud bangs harmed nothing but astronauts' underwear. For Mir missions, astronauts simply de-powered the avionics that controlled the shuttle's thrusters, but there were always windows of opportunity for the thrusters to glitch when they were powered, such as during undocking and docking procedures.

      Besides the obvious difference in size and mass between the US shuttle and Rooskie capsule, there's a fundamental difference in philosophy about performance. Russian capsules have always had under-powered thrusters because, as noted in this discussion, they don't need much thrust once in orbit. American Gemini and Apollo capsules and the shuttle have been comparative hotrods with significant design influence from their military test pilots, who wanted responsive vehicles.

      This led to NASA's fear about a docked shuttle's motors firing accidentally: the thrusters could tear the shuttle off the station, depressurizing both vehicles and causing a TPK.

  6. Andy The Hat Silver badge


    Is it just me who can smell something odorous in the Russian space programme? Such a string of apparently unrelated faults and issues is, to say the least, unusual ... Either QC has fallen through the floor or perhaps a separatist has got his spanner in the works somewhere?

    1. Voland's right hand Silver badge

      Re: WTF

      You missed the more obvious explanation.

      This picture looks like standard "product transition" scenario you can see in nearly any big shop.

      Under the current diplomatic conditions the contract with NASA is now assigned to the B team. The same is valid for a list of programs considered as legacy and not in need of A team.

      In the meantime, the A team is working on something else. It will be interesting to see what rolls off the assembly line in Plisetsk (or somewhere else where the press does not have access on a nearly 24x7 basis) within the next few years.

      1. Andy The Hat Silver badge

        Re: WTF

        "... the A team is working on something else."

        I don't buy that. These are almost 'mass produced' craft, not something new so QC and consistency of product off the production line *should* be good - if they aren't that's a failure in it's own right.

        The Russians make a lot of money launching - a single failure of such a public vehicle is bad for PR, but the business will work it out and the company will be fine. Multiple failures make people talk to alternative suppliers - Chinese, Indians, ESO, SpaceX or whatever and, down the line, that's seriously bad for the company.

    2. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: WTF

      The Duma have just been investigating Roscosmos and some people from their contractors have just been charged with corruption. The head of the Duma committee said something like $1.3 billion of their 2013 budget can't be accounted for. This is either a major probe into sorting out serious corruption - or some of senior management being punished for various recent failures, it's hard to know.

      Russian government spending was already being tightened before sanctions and the collapse in the oil price did such damage to the Russian economy and tax base. They've also been heavily increasing defence spending for a few years, so I do wonder if money has been moved from the civilian to the military space programmes.

      Equally it's possible that Roscosmos is extremely well funded, but now suffering crippling levels of corruption.

      Apparently 98% of people arrested in Russia go on to get convicted, and according to a piece I read from a Russian commentator you have to bribe the police to let you go before you get to the police station, as once you're there and the paperwork is started, you're doomed.

  7. Gobhicks

    Malfunction, eh?

    Uh, HAL, what just happened?

    I'm not sure Dave, perhaps you should go and investigate.

  8. speedbird007

    Malfunction, eh?

    Will no one think of the Tribbles?

  9. This post has been deleted by its author

  10. bigphil9009


    As someone who has just read Neal Stephenson's frankly excellent "Seveneves" novel, I can only assume that this event somehow presages the imminent destruction of the moon and the extermination of all life on earth. This is not a good thing.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Seveneves

      Having also just read it I have to agree it's excellent and clasp includes some lessons on orbital dynamics and practicalities of being in space that are very educational

  11. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

    It didn't happen to release a series of transparent plastic globes into the atmosphere, presumably containing some sort of spore, did it? Is that the sound of laughter I can hear from within Vladimir's hollowed-out-volcano lair?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Vladimir does not of laughing, comrade!

  12. Stevie Silver badge


    Now we need to know if the AE-35 unit has been reporting intermittent malfunctions.

  13. sillyfudder

    Twitter comment from someone who knows

    Chris Hadfield (@Cmdr_Hadfield) ex ISS commander, tweeted a couple of things about this:

    "While re-powering the Soyuz after 6 mos it's possible to inadvertently activate its attitude control & fire the thrusters."

    "No real harm done, it happened during Expedition 7 too, just wastes a bit of fuel, and Soyuz has plenty."

    Doesn't really sound that alarming?

    On the other hand not sounding alarmed is part of his job :O)

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    And send up more space diapers!

    because an unexpected rocket firing might've gotten the mission specialists a bit, surprised.

  15. x 7

    All this is unimportant rubbish

    The important question is......who was the first woman to have sex in space and was it fun?

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re. 63 mile high club

    That was an urban legend, the 'nauts on the ISS and formerly the Shuttle are much too busy for this.

    I did hear however that at least one married couple made it into space until a certain agency started prohibiting this.

    Apparently they drifted apart however.

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