More Delays Possible for Russia’s Troubled ISS Laboratory

Multi-Purpose Laboratory Module (Credit: Khrunichev)

Poor Russia.

The country keeps trying to expand its use of the International Space Station, but the centerpiece of that effort — the Multi-Purpose Laboratory Module (MLM), named Nauka — has been delayed for a decade since its planned 2007 launch.

But, with launch planned for the end of this year or during the first half of 2018, more problems have been found.

In the past few weeks, engineers found the same contamination they’ve been fighting for years inside the module’s propellant tanks. The repair team tried to wash off these contaminants, but so far all efforts to cleanse the vessels have failed.

To make matters worse, these particular tanks, originally designed in the early 90s, are no longer in production and simply can’t be replaced. Because of these tanks’ unique design, fitted neatly onto the module like the chamber of a revolver, no modern tanks will work without damaging the spacecraft.

Nauka engineers did catch one lucky break. Roscosmos originally designed the vessel with a second set of shorter tanks. But to make room on the exterior of the converted module for the attachment of a European-built robotic arm and various scientific instruments, engineers removed the them. Now, these remaining (hopefully non-contaminated) tanks could be the only chance to get this long beleaguered spacecraft attached to the ISS.

Engineers have calculated that a mix of four of these short tanks and two long tanks will give the Nauka module just enough propellant to maneuver itself to the space station after its separation from the Proton M rocket and even have some extra fuel for another attempt to rendezvous with the station if needed.

Although a thin ray of hope remains that Russia will finally get its long delayed spacecraft aloft, no one can tell right now how long this new obstacle will delay the Nauka from finally docking with the ISS.

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