Russia is assessing the flight-worthiness of the Soyuz crew capsule docked with the International Space Station (ISS) that sprang a coolant leak Wednesday last week. The leak, which was spotted by ground staff on external video footage from the station, caused the temperature in the crew section of the capsule to rise to 86F (30C) and the equipment section as high as 104F (40C). In a press conference yesterday, officials said that it may become necessary to send up a rescue vessel to bring back essentially stranded crew members. There are presently seven astronauts aboard the ISS. If the leaky MS-22 capsule is deemed unfit for crewed flight, it would mean that the orbital laboratory only has one viable “lifeboat” capable of carrying four people in the event an emergency evacuation is needed.
Sergei Krikalev — the Russian State Space Corporation (Roscosmos) Executive Director for Human Space Programs — said that the damage to the capsule is being assessed.
A thermal analysis of the cabin temperature will determine if MS-22 is safe to carry astronauts back down to the Earth’s surface.
If it proves to be unfit for purpose, Roscosmos will likely advance the launch of another Soyuz capsule from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in southern Kazakhstan — but send it up uncrewed to pick up the astronauts that were supposed to return with MS-22.
NASA’s ISS programme manager Joel Montalbano said: “They’re looking at late February to send up the next Soyuz vehicle.
MS-22 ferried both Russian cosmonauts Dmitry Petelin and Sergey Prokopyev, as well the NASA astronaut Frank Rubia up to the ISS back in September.
They were joined by Josh Cassada and Nicole Mann of the USA, Japan’s Koichi Wakata and Anna Kikina of Russia, who arrived on a SpaceX Crew Dragon in October.
A spacewalk scheduled for Wednesday last week to upgrade the ISS’s solar arrays was postponed until yesterday in light of the capsule’s leak.
If it turns out that MS-22 cannot take its crew back to Earth safely, then the capsule will be sent on its return journey on its own.
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The hole in the MS-22 capsule that caused the coolant to escape has been estimated to be just 0.03 inches across — too small to have been tracked from the ground.
Last week, Mr Krikalev said that the leak may have been caused by a meteorite striking one of the external radiators of the Soyuz capsule.
NASA emphasised last week that “none of the crew members aboard the space station was in danger, and all conducted normal operations throughout the day.”
The detection of the leak in the MS-22 capsule happened to coincide with the peak of the Geminid meteor shower last week — although experts have ruled this to be a coincidence, as the hull was penetrated from the wrong direction for the Geminids.
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Mr Montalbano added: “We did look at the meteor showers that were occurring. Both the trajectory team in Houston and the trajectory team in Moscow confirmed it was not from the meteor showers.
“We got some work to do with imagery to better understand if it was a meteoroid hit or if there was a hardware issue, and that work is in front of us.”
Another possibility is that the hole was punched in the MS-22 capsule by a small but fast moving piece of space junk in low-Earth orbit.
Elsewhere in space news, earlier this week Russia and China signed a formal agreement to jointly explore the Moon and construct a scientific base on the lunar surface by 2035.