Astronauts en route to space station stuck in orbit for at least two days

ISS Expedition 39/40 has been delayed by two days due to a technical snag. The three crew members aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft will be orbiting Earth 34 times during these days – a deviation from a six-hour travel time that was initially planned by the mission.

Vasily Maximov/AP Photo
U.S. astronaut Steven Swanson, center, Russian cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov, bottom, and Oleg Artemyev, crew members of the mission to the International Space Station (ISS) gesture prior the launch of Soyuz-FG rocket at the Russian leased Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Wednesday, March 26, 2014.

Three crew members, part of Expedition 39/40, are stuck in a cramped spacecraft for two days due to a technical glitch.

The spacecraft carrying NASA’s Steve Swanson and Russian cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev was launched at 5:17 p.m. Tuesday from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. It had been scheduled to arrive to the orbital complex at 11:05 p.m. Tuesday.

According to the Associated Press, "NASA and Roscosmos, Russia's space agency, said shortly before the planned docking that the arrival had been delayed after a 24-second engine burn that was necessary to adjust the Soyuz spacecraft's orbiting path 'did not occur as planned.'"

Therefore, the team had to revert to a two-day rendezvous. The crew members are now expected to arrive on Thursday evening, NASA said in a statement.

In a video interview with NASA, Kenny Todd, ISS Missions Operations Integration Manager further elaborated on what exactly happened.

When carrying the astronauts to space, the vehicle goes through a series of "burns" intended to adjust the vehicle's orbital trajectory. While the first two burns were performed normally, the vehicle failed to perform the third burn. "Based on what we are hearing from our Russian colleagues it looks like that burn did not execute because they weren't able to do their normal systems check to confirm the attitude of the vehicle was in its proper condition, so not being able to confirm that so basically the burn did not automatically execute," he added.

At this point, it is difficult to zero in on exactly what caused the problem. But it could be be a software issue. "The Interfax news agency, however, quoted Vitali Lopota, chief of Russia's RKK Energia state-controlled rocket manufacturer, as saying that the failure of the spacecraft's software was to blame. Experts are looking into other possible causes, Lopota said," the Guardian and other media organizations reported.

As a result of the glitch, the spacecraft will now be reverting to what they call a "two-day rendezvous" for which the crew is prepared, says NASA. During these 48 hours, the astronauts will be orbiting Earth 34 times, a deviation from a six-hour travel time that was initially planned.

A two-day rendezvous is not unusual for the mission, NASA spokesman Kelly Humphries told the Monitor. It was in fact the "standard rendezvous profile" until last year and was carried out last with Expedition 34's docking at the station, on Dec. 21, 2012.

After that, NASA switched to one-day rendezvous to reduce travel time so that astronauts did not have to stay in the spacecraft for a long time. Had the technical glitch not happened, "this would have been the fifth rendezvous using the accelerated timeline," says NASA. Out of the previous one-day rendezvous missions, this is the first time a glitch has occurred, Humphries says.

NASA says that the snag will not affect the docking. The astronauts, too, are doing fine says the space agency.

Under a new deal, NASA has to pay $70.7 million dollars for one seat aboard Russia's Soyuz space capsules.

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