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Space station 'may be evacuated'

Astronauts may need to take the unprecedented step of temporarily abandoning the International Space Station if last week's Russian launch accident prevents new crews from flying there this autumn.

Until officials work out what went wrong with Russia's essential Soyuz rockets, there will be no way to launch any more astronauts before the current residents have to leave in mid-November.

The unsettling predicament comes just weeks after Nasa's final space shuttle flight.

"We have plenty of options," Nasa space station programme manager, Mike Suffredini, said. "We'll focus on crew safety as we always do."

Abandoning the space station, even for a short period, would be an unpleasant last resort for the world's five space agencies that have spent decades working on the project. Astronauts have been living aboard the space station since 2000, and the goal is to keep it going until 2020.

Mr Suffredini said flight controllers could keep a deserted space station operating indefinitely, as long as all major systems are working properly. However, the risk to the station goes up if no one is on board to fix equipment breakdowns.

Six astronauts from three countries are currently living on the orbiting complex. Three are due to leave next month; the other three are supposed to go in mid-November.

The September 22 launch of the next crew - the first to fly in the post-shuttle era - has already has been delayed indefinitely. Russia's Soyuz spacecraft have been the sole means of getting full-time station residents up and down for two years. The capsule is parked at the station until they fly it home.

To keep the orbiting outpost with a full staff of six for as long as possible, the one American and two Russians due to return to Earth on September 8 will remain on board at least an extra week.

As for supplies, the space station is well stocked and could go until next summer, Mr Suffredini said. Atlantis dropped off a year's supply of goods just last month on the final space shuttle voyage.

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