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┬áNauka — 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.

Read the full story.

  • therealdmt

    “The repair team tried to wash off these contaminants, but so far all efforts to cleanse the vessels have failed.”

    I wonder if they’ve tried lemon juice…

  • momerathe

    do we know what kind of contaminants these are?

  • Kapitalist


    Is the term “sawdust” exclusively used to mean wooden sawdust, or could it be metal sawdust? Wooden sawdust in the rocket engines fuel system??? Where does it come from? From the brains of the management?

  • patb2009

    The article says “Sawdust Contaminants” from a botched upgrade in the propulsion system.

  • JamesG

    probably metal or composite shavings.

  • Geoff T

    A bit academic given it’s looking slim this module will ever go into orbit, but does this change in the tanks preclude its use in the proposed OPSEK post-ISS space station that the Russians have been discussing for years?

  • JamesG

    I don’t see why it would. A post ISS station would actually increase its chances of getting launched because if they’ve got the money to do it (?), they would have money to orbit an already paid for module.

  • momerathe

    Huh. So I guess the danger is shavings coming loose in flight and getting into the workings, such as blocking a valve or something?

  • JamesG

    Mostly the injector ports but turbo machinery spinning at many tens of thousands of RPM do not like encountering debris either.

  • windbourne

    slivers can get into small openings, and score lots of material.

  • windbourne

    Out of curiosity, why did Europe go with attaching their robotic arm to Russian module?
    It would be nice to have that up there. And 10 years worth? Long time.
    I wonder if it can go up on the other private habitat, asimov (sp).

  • publiusr
  • Seltzer water. That gets everything out.

  • duheagle

    Most likely “sawdust” of the same material as the tanks. So, chips or swarf from the machining or fabrication process, probably. If the offending detritus was any dissimilar material, it would most probably be possible to use some kind of solvent or acid to dissolve it and leave the tanks unscathed. Not an option if the detritus is the same material as the tanks.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Seltzer and a good bagel can’t be beat, esp with some capers creamcheese and of course …. LOX.

  • Ba-doom boom!

  • patb2009

    it’s the thrusters for docking. I doubt they are pumped.

  • patb2009

    I wonder if it’s possible to put filters in the lines?

  • I’m sure the Russians have learned the same lessons the rest of the aerospace world has: you put filters in line in the system. The rule of thumb is to have the filters catch things half as large as the largest opening – usually the orifi in thruster injectors. Those filters are usually designed to catch anything that was unknowingly left in the system – but this is way past the unknown. They know they have FOD, and lots of it.

    FOD can clog filters, become stuck in an injector orifice (either ones for combustion or worse, for film cooling) or valves can try to close on them – causing a small leak when the valve has a permanent deformation when it tries to close on a piece of metal. All those filters are designed to catch things you didn’t know about after you clean out EVERYTHING you know about.

    This all leads back to the rule for when you do aerospace: you never send up anything you already know is bad. There are enough accidents that happen when you THINK everything is fine – if you know something is wrong, you are just asking for something horrible.

  • Kapitalist

    Maybe they knew the arm wouldn’t work so they put it on a module they knew would never fly, to not make their incompetence and corruption too obvious? They got paid anyway, so who cares? This is governmental space “industry”.

  • Kapitalist

    I’d like to see another filter added too, one for the recruitment of decision makers.

    Isn’t it puzzling to you, as it is to me, that the Russians have been, and still are, so very successful with human space flight to LEO? If they could do it so safely half a century ago, maybe even North Korea could send its own astronaut within a couple of years? Even if a Soyuz would explode, they have abort modes, which have even been proven for real. Astronaut in/to/from orbit death toll US-Russia is 14-4. Two lethal accidents each. And two very dangerous incidents (Apollo 13 and Soyuz T-10 in 1983).

    I’m afraid that the next dead astronaut in/to/from orbit, the first one in 34 years, would be a sever setback to near term human space flight. But I might be wrong, there have been pretty reasonable responses when it happened previously.

  • Obediah Headstrong

    Hopefully it won’t take another ten years. But with the Russians you never know.

  • Paul Thomas

    Why would a European robot arm not work?

  • Kapitalist

    Because it is cheaper )and lazier) to cheat than to achieve, and no one involved has any incentive to do the latter thing.

  • windbourne

    then since these are hard to deal with, add a smaller filter, and then do several runs through these. As the runs progress, increase the filter and the pressure.

  • windbourne


  • The system is probably welded, which will reduce reliability if they cut sections and then patch it once they’re done – and possibly create other FOD on the inside. The real problem is that the module isn’t designed to be flushed, so there aren’t sumps or purge ports designed in – features that aren’t required (and are undesirable) in space. But the module is in 1G, so they can only get out some things – then the rest will migrate freely under 0G.

    That’s why you are supposed to perform certified cleaning processes BEFORE you assemble the entire system. Once you put together a contaminated part with a clean one, they are now BOTH contaminated.

  • Paul Thomas

    That is just a ridiculous comment. their is no history of ESA building something that did not work, let alone doing it intentionally.

  • Kapitalist

    “their is no history of ESA building something that did not work”
    Ha ha ha hahah!

  • From what I’ve read, the arm was originally supposed to be attached to and service the Russian Science Power Platform, then when that module was cancelled, it was moved to the MLM. Spare joints for the arm did make it to space on STS-132 though!

  • windbourne

    IIRC, the design (it was out before my issue with memory), the only points that should be attached to the russian module would be the end point/power/data hook-up. Its design was such that it could walk points on the station. That makes the arm fully separate.
    As such, one of the private space stations habitats could actually bring the arm up, along with ends points being on the station. At the same time, I wonder if it is possible to add end points along the ISS backbone? has to have wiring along with it, but, I would think that the arm could actually have a hand that is used to attach the endpoints, handle the cables, etc. then park the hand somewhere, while moving the arm to the newly attached poiont.

  • duheagle

    Agree with the logic. The key problem is that matter of money you raise as a conditional in the second sentence. Money and Russia are increasing estranged, and no near-term reconciliation seems likely.

  • patb2009

    You have to be a little careful with filters, they put pressure drops in the system, and they may be limited in pressure budget.

    They may also have packaging issues.

  • I just got done reading another treatment of the Russian space station program. The author had a curious habit of comparing the Russian and American programs by showing how forward thinking, agile, commercial and successful the Russian program was – right before talking about yet another accident on Mir or delay in ISS modules! His ideology just didn’t match the story he was telling.

    I would call the Russians more lucky than good, and wouldn’t measure competence in body count – is a 737 accident BETTER than a 747 accident because less people are killed? I doubt any safety professional would agree with that.

    As is the case with most areas of life, there just aren’t any “out of the blue” disaster. Large accidents are preceded by non-dangerous incidents and then “almost” accidents that don’t result in harm and then by small accidents. Challenger was telegraphed long before it happened.

    In the same way, Russia has had WAY too many close calls – station fires, impacts, unexplained anomalies, failed dockings, etc. They have been smart in that they keep reusing the same systems such that they understand (and have designed out) many of the bad features. While it’s comforting the LES worked on both Soyuz 18a and T-10, it’s no badge of honor. That, couple with high launch failures in “proven” systens that support crewed flight (Proton launches modules while Progress capsule bring the food) is alarming. Envy of western Moon programs is driving the Russians to new (read – untested) capsules and rockets – not a recipe for success.

    At least we can blame Antares and Falcon failures as deliberate attempts to decrease cost by increasing risk. When Soyuz and Protons blow, it says people don’t know what they are doing. If Russia doesn’t fix these non-fatal accidents, loss of life is the natural result.

  • windbourne

    which is why I suggested doing multiple runs with increasing tighter filters.

  • Kapitalist

    Add the corruption at Vostochny, from where btw they don’t seem to plan any crewed launches because they don’t want to land in the surrounding forests after a pad abort. And now there’s a strike in Guyana too. Huge delays for Angara and this ISS module, possibly for the ExoMars rover too, no interplanetary mission made in 30 years except for the failed Phobos attempt. Constant talk about a Lunar program, an own space station, a Saturn V class launcher and on and on nothing of which materializes. The launch failure of a bunch of upper stages the last few years is only a symptom of deep organizational problems.

  • JamesG

    Russia has more money than you think. You can’t look at their “books” and compare it to the West. The state and oligarchs still control vast pools of wealth and are able (and willing) to make the public and private sectors suffer deprivations that would be intolerable here.

  • Another thing to think of, you probably couldn’t flush with water – because how would you bake it out afterwards? You’d probably have to flush with 100% isopropyl alcohol, something with a high vapor pressure so you could ensure you get all the fluid out with relatively low heat and not have the flush be a new source of FOD.

  • JamesG

    depends a lot on what the contaminant is and the internal structure. if there are ribs and stringers obstructing the insides, no amount of flushing will ever get it all.

  • duheagle

    Those “vast pools of wealth” are all in foreign bank accounts. The total current income available to the kleptocrats in charge of Russia is a fraction of what it was two or three years ago. None of the oligarchs are going to be missing any meals anytime soon, but times are now, comparatively, hard and look to be staying that way for the foreseeable future.

    Based on the huge reductions already reported in official space budgets, nobody in Putin’s inner circle is going to have their previously ill-gotten gains confiscated for the sake of keeping up with the U.S. and Chinese Joneses in space. If things ever get that tight, the money would go to the military before it went to space.

    But Putin only expropriates people who decide they can oppose him. The examples he made of a couple of ex-oligarchs who tried that awhile back have been an object lesson to the rest. These days, they’re content to steal whatever little isn’t already coming their way and otherwise keep their heads down and their noses clean.

    You’re right about the common people of Russia suffering. But that’s been going on for the past thousand years at least. There’s a reason Russian literature is so grim.

  • JamesG

    Careful not to believe to much in your own sides propaganda.

    Not all (most) of Russia’s wealth isn’t in money. Or even oil for that matter regardless of if that is what we focus on. One of the characteristics of a “keptocracy” is that it is secretive about its finances. The Russians were able to keep their experiment of a global socialist workers paradise tottering along for an extra 20 years past its expiration date.

  • patb2009

    These are the docking thrusters. Is it possible to fix the system using the short tanks and
    change the mission design? Have a small tug meet the module, have it escort the module
    into the right place and then undock? Could you use a Cygnus or Progress or even a soyuz
    as the tug?