A Nasa astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut have been forced to skip an extra-vehicular activity (EVA) (spacewalk) after spacecraft being prepared to dock with the International Space Station became debris-spotted.
American Peggy Whitson and Russian Oleg Kononenko were due to go out on Friday to test the newest of three docking systems that will allow crews to get to the station sooner by cutting down on the time it takes to manoeuvre space taxis into a docking position on station.
On Thursday the craft had been poised to depart from the orbital complex and enter the “docking port” of the complex, when the manned space station used its tracking station to spot a bright object the size of a softball moving in the direction of the Russian Soyuz capsule as it passed by.
The manoeuvre was aborted.
“They assessed that they were not certain that they were not going to see any debris,” Nasa spokeswoman Holly Ridings said. “And, at that point, they elected to not go ahead and carry out the EVA.”
The object turned out to be a radar-echo test array for communications systems in the Soyuz capsule which cannot communicate directly with the station but is operated by ground controllers.
Russian scientists used the same procedure to find the small object aboard the ISS, which had caused no danger. NASA astronauts also recalled from a spacewalk scheduled for today in preparation for returning American David Saint-Jacques from the ISS.
“NASA engineers plan to test a one-piece camera on the live webcast display of the spacewalk on Friday morning to gain a more precise location for cleaning the spacewalkers’ hands of orbital dust and debris,” the space agency said in a statement.
Three members of the Expedition 55 crew were left stranded on the ISS after the cancellation of the spacewalk. One of the three returning from the station – cosmonaut Sergey Ryazanskiy – was aboard the Soyuz spacecraft that was parked away from the space station.
Whitson, also known as the “passenger”, began work on Saturday to check software to ensure the deployment of the docking system is fully functional before its official launch on Thursday night, Nasa said.
“The docking port, with its robotic arm, is being used to test all three of the new docking options for launching small vehicles to the space station,” NASA said.
The space station is currently home to three crew members – Americans, Americans and Russians.
Russia is one of only two nations to have reached the ISS with crews since the US ended its shuttle programme in 2011.
Russia owns and runs the ISS together with Nasa. It will take about two weeks for the Soyuz spacecraft to re-orient itself back toward the station while the astronauts stay put.
American astronauts Scott Kelly and Mark Kelly, who are two months into a year-long mission on the ISS, are expected to leave the orbiting laboratory on 19 October.
All three members of the ISS crew will return home at the end of the year. The final crew for 2020 will include three men and three women, and the first landing date has yet to be announced.
• This article was amended on 12 October to correct Nasa’s prefix for Oleg Kononenko. He is Russian rather than Ukrainian.