A space capsule built to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) has failed its first test flight, and will now return to Earth without completing its mission. The capsule, named Starliner, has been built by Boeing, and was successfully launched by NASA from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Friday morning (evening in India).

What went wrong?

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket lifted off successfully, and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner separated as expected. Updates on the flight tracker on the NASA website said it was “flying on its own, embarking on its inaugural flight to the International Space Station”. The rocket was supposed to fall in the Pacific Ocean near Australia, while Starliner, “after a series of orbital adjustments”, was to be “on course for rendezvous and docking with the space station at 5 am on Saturday, December 21”.

However, the Starliner apparently fired its engines at the wrong time and, as a result, entered a wrong orbit. NASA reported that the capsule was “not in its planned orbit”, although “in a stable configuration while flight controllers are troubleshooting”.

A top Boeing official, Jim Chilton, was quoted by The New York Times as saying “we don’t understand the root cause” of why the spacecraft’s clock was set at the wrong time. Attempts to send a command to fix the problem apparently did not reach the spacecraft because it was in between satellite communication links, the New York Times report said, quoting NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine.

At a news conference, Bridenstine said the faulty thrusting had caused far too much fuel to be burned, and the mission would no longer be pursued. “That’s safe to take off the table at this point,” he said. “It’s not worth doing at this point given the amount of fuel we burned.” NASA was planning to have the capsule land in California on Sunday.

How big a setback is this?

This was a trial mission, with no one on board except a spacesuit-wearing mannequin called Rosie strapped to one of the seats. Sensors on Rosie were supposed to measure the forces that future astronauts would feel in the spacecraft. NASA said any astronauts on board would not have been at risk due to Starliner veering off-course — in fact, they might have been able to take over the spacecraft and tried to get the thruster burn right.

Yet, the failure is likely to push back further NASA’s already delayed — and repeatedly postponed — attempt at resuming human spaceflight from the United States. NASA has contracts with Boeing and Elon Musk’s SpaceX to build spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS. For more than eight years, no human has gone to space from US soil, and NASA has relied on Russia to get its astronauts on the space station.

Friday’s failure could delay the programme by perhaps a couple more years, reports were saying. It is unclear in what shape the Starliner would be when it lands, and whether it would be possible to examine the reason for the thruster malfunction.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule is scheduled to launch on January 11. It will be a crewless flight, and if it succeeds, SpaceX could be in a position to send astronauts into space in the first half of next year.

Source: The Indian Express

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