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Japanese quake disrupts space station operations

Posted: March 11, 2011

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The deadly 8.9-magnitude earthquake that struck Japan Friday ravaged the country's International Space Station control center in Tsukuba and forced NASA to take over the lab's Japanese systems, according to an agency spokesperson.

Damage inside the Japanese Tsukuba mission control center.
Photos of the Tsukuba Space Center's control center show debris littering the floor and filing cabinets tipped over. Other reports indicated part of a roof may have collapsed at the space center, which is about 30 miles northeast of central Tokyo.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency did not post any updates on its website after the tremor, other than saying public tours of its facilities in affected areas were terminated until further notice.

NASA says the mission control center in Houston took over monitoring telemetry from the space station's Kibo laboratory and the H-2 Transfer Vehicle, a robotic cargo ship that delivered supplies to the outpost in January.

"JAXA did a nominal shutdown of all of its payloads on the station before the team evacuated (Tsukuba)," said Kelly Humphries, a NASA spokesperson. "NASA and other (international partner) research going on in the Kibo laboratory is continuing unfettered."

NASA has previously relocated its mission control operations from Houston when hurricanes have beared down on the Johnson Space Center.

Damage inside the Japanese Tsukuba mission control center.
Humphries told Spaceflight Now the planned hatch opening of the HTV cargo craft scheduled for Friday will be delayed to at least Monday, saying "we will adjust as needed based on Tsukuba's ability to support."

Astronauts aboard the space station used a robotic arm Thursday to move the HTV to a new berthing port following space shuttle Discovery's departure earlier this week. The crew planned to load more trash into the cargo craft before it is supposed to leave the station March 28.

JAXA's facility in Tsukuba also manages the country's astronaut training complex and launch vehicle programs.

Mission control radioed the space station crew that no astronauts assigned to future expedition crews were scheduled to be training in Tsukuba this week.

The Tsukuba Space Center is also a test facility for JAXA satellites. Japan's Global Change Observation Mission spacecraft was at Tsukuba undergoing preflight tests for its scheduled launch around the end of the year. The mission is designed to track precipitation and the water cycle around the world.

A view of the HTV control room before the earthquake.
The Mitsubishi Heavy Industries factory for Japan's H-2A and H-2B rockets is located in Nagoya, a large city southwest of Tokyo away from the hardest-hit regions.

Centered about 80 miles east of the northern Japanese city of Sendai, the quake hit at 2:46 p.m. local time (0546 GMT) and spawned a destructive tsunami that inundated lengthy stretches of the east coast of Honshu, Japan's largest island.

The tsunami didn't reach Tsukuba, but the the initial tremor caused significant damage and forced the center's closure.

Japan's rocket launch site on Tanegashima Island was spared from the tsunami. Live cameras at Tanegashima showed the base's H-2A and H-2B launch pads intact and the site's Vehicle Assembly Building showing no obvious exterior damage.

Tanegashima is at the southern end of Japan about 600 miles southwest of Tokyo, far removed from the bulk of the earthquake and tsunami damage.