Following the devastating 8.9-magnitude earthquake that struck Japan on March 11, the nation's primary space center has gone offline due to damage and security issues. The center also included the control room for the Japanese section of the International Space Station (ISS).
Shortly after the geological event took place, officials decided to evacuate the Tsukuba Space Center (TSC), fearing that the buildings there may have become unstable due to the vibrations.
This decision was taken by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), which is in charge of managing all of the country's national space activities. The organization is also a key partner in the ISS program, alongside the United States, Russia, Canada and the European Union.
JAXA representatives explained that employees of the TSC Space Station Integration and Promotion Center have been evacuated following the earthquake, and then sent home, Space reports.
This particular group was in charge of overseeing the activities and status of the Japanese-built Kibo laboratory module on the orbital facility, as well as the operations of the unmanned cargo ships that JAXA sends to resupply the space lab.
Currently, the H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV-2) is docked to the ISS, having delivered tons of scientific equipment, food, water, propellant and personal items for the six members of the Expedition 26 crew.
“They will stay with their families and take care of them during the weekend. They will come back on Monday and check up on how much the damage is,” Kumiko Sagara, a spokeswoman for JAXA, said in an email relayed via the NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston.
The American space agency's mission control said that no astronauts associated with ISS, or experts from the various nations involved in the project, were scheduled to be in Japan at the time the earthquake struck.
Early images secured from TSC cameras indicate that the facility has suffered some damage. The photos show collapsed roofs, cabinets that have been tipped over, as well as other debris clogging the hallways. But activities could soon resume, if no damage came to the buildings' structural integrity.
At this point, all operations associated with managing the JAXA-controlled sections of the ISS are being conducted by NASA flight controllers at the JSC and the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), in Huntsville, Alabama.
There is currently no danger of ISS operations being affected. The international group managing it has experienced control room shut-downs in the past, when for example hurricanes forced the JSC to go offline.