Glitch Found on European Spacecraft

By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 11, 2008

European space experts worked yesterday to learn what caused one of four engines to malfunction shortly after the maiden launch late Saturday of an automated space transport headed to the international space station.

Officials with the European Space Agency said all other systems on the state-of-the-art spacecraft were working well after its launch from the agency's base in South America, and they did not expect the engine problem to keep the transport, named the Jules Verne, from docking with the space station next month.

The glitch developed as NASA prepared the space shuttle Endeavour for a launch scheduled for early this morning. The shuttle is carrying up part of a Japanese-made laboratory that will ultimately join labs produced by the United States, Russia and the European Space Agency that are attached to the orbiting station.

Japanese astronaut Takao Doi is one of seven astronauts on the shuttle flight, which is transporting parts of the Kibo laboratory as well as a Canadian-built two-armed robotic system called Dextre.

The planned 16-day shuttle mission, the longest so far to the space station, is part of a concerted effort by NASA to finish assembly of the long-delayed space station by September 2010, at which point the three space shuttles will be retired.

The agency will not have any replacement vehicles to carry astronauts and cargo to the station for at least five years, and the just-launched European "automated transfer vehicle" is part of the agency's plan to continue operating during the five-year gap. NASA will have to rely on the Russian space agency to do most of the ferrying of astronauts and cargo to and from the station.

The Europeans' Jules Verne, which is carrying 4.6 tons of cargo, is the first of six transport launches the Europeans promised as their contribution to the space station effort. The vehicle has taken almost a decade to develop and launch.

ESA spokesman Franco Bonacina said that the shutdown of one of the transport's engines was done automatically shortly after the spacecraft reached orbit and was associated with a pressure imbalance in the jumble of pipes and valves leading from the fuel tanks to the thrusters.

Bonacina said that researchers and engineers were working to fix the problem from mission control in Toulouse, France, and that the problem did not appear to pose any serious threat to the mission. Even if it cannot be fixed, he said, the transport will be able to dock with the space station.

That docking cannot take place, however, until the shuttle Endeavour has arrived and departed -- more than two weeks from today. With that much time to work on the problem, European officials said they expect to be able to fix it.

About half of the Jules Verne's payload is propellant for use by rockets that periodically push the space station higher to compensate for the natural decay of its orbit. The rest is oxygen, drinking water and dry goods.

After spending four months docked to the station, the transport will carry away waste and will burn up in the atmosphere as it plunges to Earth over the southern Pacific Ocean. The Japanese space agency is also developing a space station transport, as are two private American companies working with NASA.

The Jules Verne is the first automated spacecraft designed to dock with the station in full compliance with the tight safety constraints imposed after the 2003 space shuttle Columbia disaster.

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