Boeing’s new Starliner capsule has run into trouble in orbit minutes after blasting off on its first test flight.
Everything went flawlessly as an Atlas V rocket soared with the Starliner just before sunrise, in a crucial dress rehearsal for next year’s inaugural launch with astronauts.
But half an hour into the flight, Boeing reported that the capsule’s insertion into orbit was not normal.
Officials said flight controllers were looking at their options and stressed that the capsule was in a stable orbit, at least for now.
The Starliner was supposed to reach the International Space Station on Saturday, but that now appears to be in jeopardy.
The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying the capsule blasted off just before sunrise from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. It was due to be a one-day trip to the space station, putting the spacecraft on track for a docking on Saturday morning.
Who's travelling on board?
Named Rosie the Rocketeer, the test dummy was loaded with sensors to measure how she reacts to G-forces on the un-piloted mission.
Crowned with a red bandana by female Boeing workers and wearing a blue space suit, Rosie was joined by cargo for the International Space Station (ISS) in the capsule, in what the UK Space Agency has said is an important step towards the future of space exploration.
NASA’s other commercial crew partner, SpaceX successfully launched a Dragon capsule to the space station in March.
Libby Jackson, human exploration programme manager at the UK Space Agency, said: “We’re looking forward to the future of space exploration and this Boeing launch is a step along that.
“It is important to get these two spacecraft flying next year, so we can keep the space station with crews of six and going up to seven people in the next few years.”
The reusable Starliner capsule is being developed in collaboration with NASA’s Commercial Crew Programme, allowing America to launch people to low Earth orbit for the first time since 2011.
Previously, the only way to and from the ISS as been on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft and NASA had to buy seats from Russia for its astronauts and their obligations to international partners, including the European Space Agency (ESA).
At the ESA ministerial meeting in November the UK pledged £180 million towards space exploration.
A full crew of astronauts on board the ISS is needed to make sure they can effectively continue with scientific research.
Ms Jackson told the PA news agency: “The environment at the International Space Station is unique.
“It is a facility for hundreds of thousands of scientists all around the world who are able to send their experiments there, and the research that is done benefits everybody terrestrially back here on Earth.”
She also said the mission will help in the understanding of how humans age.
She added: “When astronauts go into space, their bodies change in ways that are very similar to those that happen to everybody as we get older.
“Their muscles get weaker, their bones get weaker, their skin gets thinner, their eyesight changes.
“And this is all because they suddenly are adapting to a world where they don’t feel the effects of gravity.
“By studying the changes in astronauts and also in cells, in animals, we understand the underlying processes of ageing, the molecular processes, what happens to the cells.
“And it’s another data point that we can’t get on Earth, and bring back to Earth to improve scientists’ understanding of ageing, which will help lead to research understanding technologies, new drugs, all sorts of things that will help everybody back on Earth as we all get older and to live healthier lives.”
The Starliner will return on December 28 and this test flight will monitor systems and highlight any developments that should be made.