/Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft fails to reach ISS due to a broken clock

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft fails to reach ISS due to a broken clock

Starliner launch

A long-exposure image of Boeing’s Starliner launch

Terry Renna/AP/Shutterstock

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft will be unable to reach the International Space Station during its first test flight. The spacecraft launched as expected on 20 December and made it into orbit around Earth, but a problem occurred about 30 minutes after lift-off from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

By that point, Starliner was already in space and should have fired its thrusters to raise its orbit even higher, so that it matched the orbit of the ISS – but it didn’t.

In a statement, Boeing said that the spacecraft is in “a safe and stable configuration” as engineers figure out what to do next. However, NASA head Jim Bridenstine said in a press conference that too much fuel has already been burned and that even though Starliner is still raising its orbit, it won’t be able to reach to the ISS.

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According to Bridenstine, the issue was an anomaly with one of Starliner’s clocks, which made the spacecraft’s systems behave as if the mission was further along than it was and use up much of its fuel too early.

It isn’t yet clear why the clock was wrong, but Boeing has placed Starliner in an orbit that will allow it to land in New Mexico on 22 December. The company will run more tests during the remainder of the flight and after the spacecraft lands. After those tests, NASA and Boeing will decide whether more test flights are needed.

“This morning’s launch was a test flight, which is why it flew a mannequin instead of an astronaut,” says space consultant Laura Forczyk. “Failures are expected during testing.” The Starliner craft is designed to carry astronauts into space, and Bridenstine said that because the problem was an automation issue, having crew members on board may well have saved the mission.

Starliner’s first crewed flight was scheduled for its next test in early 2020, but now it will probably be postponed, says Forczyk. Delays with Boeing and SpaceX, both of which have been contracted to build capsules to shuttle NASA astronauts to the ISS, have already led NASA to consider purchasing more seats aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

“Further delays in the Commercial Crew Program unfortunately mean NASA will continue to be reliant on its Russian partner to fly NASA astronauts to the ISS,” says Forczyk. Launching humans into space from US soil, a feat that hasn’t been achieved since the Space Shuttle programme ended in 2011, may have to wait.

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