Mon, Mar 30, 2009 - Page 6 News List

Sensor malfunction prompts manual docking

AP , KOROLYOV, RUSSIA, AND CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA

A Russian cosmonaut was forced to dock a Soyuz capsule carrying US billionaire tourist Charles Simonyi manually at the International Space Station (ISS) on Saturday after a sensor monitoring the engines apparently malfunctioned.

Engineers played down the incident, but it renewed recent questions about Russia’s otherwise famously reliable spacecraft.

Vladimir Solovyov, flight director for the Russian space agency Roscosmos, said that just a few minutes before the docking time an autopilot signal went off showing that one of Soyuz engines might have failed.

Cosmonaut Gennady Padalka reported that the engines were operating normally and he took manual control of the capsule to keep an emergency computer program from thrusting the engines and sending the craft backing away from the station.

“We took the decision not to allow that,” Solovyov told a news conference at Russia’s mission control in Korolyov, on Moscow’s outskirts.

“We have to figure out what happened,” he said.

The docking by Padalka appeared otherwise smooth and was slightly ahead of schedule, roughly two days after the capsule blasted off from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan Applause broke out among space officials and crew relatives gathered at mission control after the hookup was announced.

Cosmonauts typically receive extensive training in the event that Soyuz’s autopilot fails or some other problem pops up.

Padalka and US astronaut Michael Barratt are joining the ISS’ current crew, while Simonyi, who is making his second trip as a paying customer to the space station, returns to Earth on April 7 along with cosmonaut Yuri Lonchakov and NASA astronaut Michael Fincke.

Some three hours after docking, the crews opened the hatches and Padalka, Barratt and Simonyi floated in to greet the station’s occupants — Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, NASA astronaut Michael Fincke and cosmonaut Yury Lonchakov — with hugs, smiles and handshakes.

Simonyi, who helped build software for Microsoft Corp, is expected to be the last paying customer to travel aboard Russian spacecraft to the station for the foreseeable future since the ISS’ permanent crew is expanding from three to six.

Simonyi plans on conducting medical and radiation experiments and chatting with schoolchildren via ham radio and with his family via video stream during his tenure on the station.

Meanwhile, the space shuttle Discovery and its crew of seven safely landed in Florida on Saturday after completing its mission to install solar arrays aboard the ISS.

The shuttle’s arrival was announced with a triumphant double sonic boom that shook the air above the Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. The 100 tonne glider descended for just over an hour from an altitude of 350km, after NASA had scrapped its first landing attempt earlier because of the weather.

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