A gyroscope for keeping the international space station stable and in the right position stopped working, just hours after a new two-man crew moved in for a half-year stay, NASA said Thursday.
The breakdown of the American-made system Wednesday night left the space station with only two functioning gyroscopes, the minimum needed to control the massive complex. And one of those units has exhibited current spikes and vibrations in recent months.
A fourth gyroscope broke two years ago. It was supposed to be replaced a year ago, but the Columbia accident put its delivery via a space shuttle on indefinite hold.
NASA spokesman Allard Beutel stressed that the crew members were in no jeopardy.
He said that the space station was cruising along just fine with two gyroscopes and that if one of those were to fail, Russian thrusters could be used for months to steer the outpost. Those thrusters, however, would use up precious fuel.
The gyroscope in question — essentially a spinning wheel — slowly came to a halt, which leads engineers to believe that the cause of the breakdown was a power failure. If the trouble was indeed caused by a power cutoff, plenty of spare parts are on board, officials said.
Astronaut Michael Fincke and cosmonaut Gennady Padalka would have to go out on a spacewalk to replace the power control pack. They are already scheduled to perform two spacewalks during their mission.
Fincke said he is confident “we’ll be able to handle whatever comes our way.”
Fincke and Padalka rocketed away from the Russian launch site in Kazakhstan late Sunday. They are replacing astronaut Michael Foale and cosmonaut Alexander Kaleri, who have been on board since October and will return to Earth next week.