NASA is examining SpaceX’s crew backup plan for the leaked Russian Soyuz spacecraft

A stream of particles, which NASA says appears to be a liquid and possibly a coolant, is pouring from the International Space Station’s Soyuz spacecraft, forcing two Russian cosmonauts to delay a planned December 14, 2022 spacewalk in this Still image taken from a video.

NASA TV | via Reuters

NASA is exploring whether SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft can offer an alternate flight for some International Space Station crew members after a Russian capsule leaked coolant while docked at the orbiting laboratory.

NASA and Russian space agency Roscosmos are investigating why a cooling line punctured the external radiator of Russia’s Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft, which is supposed to return its crew of two cosmonauts and one American astronaut to Earth early next year.

But the Dec. 14 leakAnd the That emptied the Soyuz of a vital fluid used to regulate crew cabin temperatures derailed the Russian space station’s actions as engineers in Moscow checked whether to launch another Soyuz to recover the three-man team that flew to the International Space Station aboard the MS- 22 deactivated. .

If Russia can’t launch another Soyuz, or for some reason decides it would be too risky to do so, NASA is considering another option.

“We have asked SpaceX some questions about its ability to return additional crew members aboard Dragon if needed, but that is not our primary focus at this time,” NASA spokeswoman Sandra Jones said in a statement to Reuters.

SpaceX did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.

It wasn’t clear what specifically NASA required of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capabilities, such as whether the company could find a way to augment the capacity of the Crew Dragon currently docked at the station, or launch an empty capsule to rescue the crew.

But the company’s possible participation in a Russian-led mission underscores the degree of precautions NASA takes to ensure astronauts return safely to Earth, should one of Russia’s other contingency plans fail.

The leaky Soyuz capsule carried US astronaut Frank Rubio and cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitry Petlin to the space station in September for a six-month mission. They were scheduled to return to Earth in March 2023.

The station’s other four crew members — two more from NASA, a third Russian astronaut and a Japanese astronaut — arrived in October via the NASA-contracted SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, which is also still parked on the International Space Station.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, a gumdrop-shaped pod with four astronaut seats, has become the focus of NASA’s human spaceflight efforts in low Earth orbit. Besides the Russian Soyuz program, it is the only entity capable of ferrying humans to the space station and back.

Three possible culprits

Finding the cause of the leak can inform decisions about the best way to bring the crew back. A puncture caused by the AC, a blow from a piece of space debris or an instrumentation malfunction on the Soyuz capsule itself are three possible causes of the leak that NASA and Roscosmos are investigating.

Mike Suffredini, who led NASA’s International Space Station program for a decade through 2015, said a hardware failure could raise additional questions for Roscosmos about the safety of other Soyuz vehicles, such as the one it might send to rescue the crew.

He said, “I can assure you that’s something they’re looking at, to see what’s out there and if there’s a concern about it.” “The thing about the Russians is they’re really good at not talking about what they’re doing, but they’re very precise.”

Roskosmos chief Yuri Borisov had previously said that engineers would decide by Tuesday how to return the crew to Earth, but the agency said that day that it would make the decision in January.

NASA has previously said that capsule temperatures remain “within acceptable limits,” as the crew compartment is currently vented with airflow allowed through an open hatch into the International Space Station.

Sergey Krikalev, Russia’s head of manned space programs, told reporters last week that the temperature would rise rapidly if the station’s hatch was closed.

Jones said NASA and Roscosmos are primarily focused on determining the cause of the leak, as well as the health of MS-22 which is also intended to serve as a lifeboat for the three-man crew in the event of an emergency on the station requiring evacuation.

At first, the recent meteor shower seemed to raise the odds of a precise meteorite strike as the culprit, but the spill was facing the wrong way for that to be the case, Joel Montalbano, NASA’s International Space Station program manager, told reporters last week, despite the possibility of a rock. satellite. It comes from another direction.

And if a portion of space debris is to blame, it could raise concerns of an increasingly chaotic orbital environment and raise questions about whether critical equipment such as a spacecraft’s cooling line should be protected by debris shielding, like other parts of the MS-22 spacecraft.

“We’re not protected against everything around the space station,” Suffredini said. “We cannot be protected from everything.”

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