Russia is considering a “rescue” plan to send an empty spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) to bring back three crew members stranded after a Soyuz crew capsule leaked while docked at the orbital outpost.
Roscosmos and NASA officials said at a news conference Thursday that they continue to investigate how the coolant line in the capsule’s external radiator suffered a small hole last week, just as two astronauts were preparing for a routine spacewalk.
The craft, known as MS-22, began squirting coolant into space on December 14, with dramatic NASA TV images showing white snowflake-like particles streaming from behind.
Sergey Krikalev, who leads human spaceflight programs at Russia’s Roscosmos, said damage assessments were being conducted.
No final decision has been made on the exact means of returning the capsule’s crew members to Earth—whether by launching another Soyuz to retrieve them or by the less likely option of sending them home in the leaky capsule without most of the coolant.
If thermal analysis—which assesses the air temperature inside the cabin—concludes that MS-22 is not suitable for manned flight, the launch of another Soyuz capsule scheduled for mid-March from Baikonur Cosmodrome could be moved and launched upwards. Krikalev said.
“They are looking forward to late February to send up the next Soyuz,” added Joel Montalbano, ISS program manager at the US space agency, who was also on the call.
If so, the damaged spaceship would return to Earth without a crew.
This is not the first Soyuz leak. In 2018, the unit developed an air leak, which Roskosmos said may have been sabotage. The astronauts used tape to seal the leak after it caused a small loss of pressure that wasn’t life-threatening.
MS-22 flew Russian cosmonauts Dmitry Petlin and Sergey Prokopyev, as well as NASA astronaut Frank Rubio, to the International Space Station in September.
There are currently seven people aboard the orbital outpost, but if MS-22 is deemed inoperable, that also means the ISS has only one “lifeboat” capable of carrying four people, in case it needs to be evacuated.
Americans Josh Cassada and Nicole Mann, Japanese Koichi Wakata and Russian Anna Kikina arrived aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon in October.
Montalbano said the cause of the damage remains unclear. But it didn’t seem as though the Geminid meteor shower—an annual phenomenon—was responsible, as the structure was breached from a different direction.
“Both the track team in Houston and the track team in Moscow confirmed it wasn’t a meteor shower,” Montalbano said.
He added that more work is still needed to determine whether it was caused by naturally occurring micrometeorites, man-made debris in orbit, or hardware failure.
Roskosmos chief Yuri Borisov confirmed that officials had no fear for the crew’s safety in a live broadcast on Rossiya-24 TV channel on Wednesday.
“temperature [on the Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft] It has stabilized and has not exceeded 30 degrees Celsius recently. Today, we have no worries, primarily about the lives of the crew on the International Space Station. “The temperature stabilized after we brought air ducts there from the Russian part and maintained the temperature regime with ventilators.”
On Thursday, a spacewalk took place to update the station’s solar arrays, which were postponed on Wednesday.
Reuters and Agence France-Presse contributed to this report
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