Russian cosmonauts on the International Space Station (ISS) had their preparations for an important spacewalk rudely interrupted early this morning when an emergency alarm woke them all up just before 2am UTC.

“An emergency alarm sounded in the service module (Zvezda) of the International Space Station’s Russian segment at 04:55 Moscow time,” Russian space agency Roscosmos told the TASS news agency.

“The air purification system was switched on to eliminate the cause,” TASS continued, before adding that Roscosmos had informed them: “After the air purification, the crew members continued their rest.”

In a remarkable example of saying the quiet bit loud and the loud bit quiet, TASS and Roscosmos failed to mention what the cause of the alarm was in their otherwise whimsical report about weary cosmonauts being needlessly woken up: namely that it had been triggered by smoke and was accompanied by the smell of burning plastic.

The slightly-more-forthcoming RIA agency stated (via Reuters) that Russian cosmonaut Oleg Nivitsky reported seeing and smelling smoke around 5am Moscow time, while French astronaut Thomas Pesquet added that the smell of burning plastic had spread from the Russian segment of the station through to the US segment.

The air purification system that according to the Roscosmos/TASS report was seemingly switched on for no reason was in fact activated to scrub the air of residual smoke and burning odours.

The incident could not have happened at a worse time for the unfortunate Russian crew members – Oleg Novitskiy and Pyotr Dubrov – as they are scheduled to conduct a spacewalk today (Thursday 9 September) to continue the integration of the new Russian Nauka module with the station, installing handrails and connecting “power, ethernet, and data cables between the recently arrived module and the Zvezda service module.”

They could obviously have done with a good night’s sleep before this momentous, five-hour effort and it would have been bad enough for them if they had been forced to do the orbital equivalent of stumbling out of bed at 5am to find out what all the noise was about. But the ISS operates on Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) rather than Moscow time, which is three hours ahead (UTC+3).

This means the weary cosmonauts were forced out of bed to go scrambling around the station looking for emergencies at 01:55 station time. And while Roscosmos soothingly suggested that “after the air purification, the crew members continued their rest,” that air purification probably took a while and it is unlikely they got much rest afterwards.

This is not the first time that official Russian sources have been less than forthcoming about issues affecting their space programme. On 24 February 1997, a serious fire broke out on board the Mir space station, caused by a faulty oxygen generator canister. The Russian authorities claimed that the fire had been extinguished within 90 seconds, when it had actually been ablaze for nearly 15 minutes.

NASA was not informed of the incident for nearly 12 hours, despite the presence of a NASA astronaut – Dr Jerry Linenger – on the Soviet-era station at the time.

The ISS has also suffered a series of misfortunes recently, including the discovery of cracks in the 1998-vintage Russian Zarya module, while the arrival of the Nauka module was accompanied by an exuberant, if unplanned, firing of its engines three hours after it was docked. The blast spun the entire station around one and a half times, meaning its position had to later be corrected by mission control.

The spacewalk – Russian EVA 50 – is scheduled to begin at 11:00 EDT (15:00 UTC/16:00 BST in London). If you want to watch dozy cosmonauts try and connect Ethernet cables in zero gravity while wearing gloves, it can be watched live via the NASA website. ®

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