Story written for CBS News and used with permission
Russian managers are assessing whether a damaged Soyuz spacecraft docked at the International Space Station can safely ferry its three-man crew back to Earth in late March as planned, officials said Monday, or whether a replacement should be launched to replace it.
“I think that at the end of December, specialists will decide … how we will resolve this situation,” Yuri Borisov, director of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, said in an interview with the Izvestia daily.
The Soyuz MS-22/68S ferry ship was supposedly hit last Wednesday by a small piece of space debris or a small meteor that ruptured a cooling line, resulting in an hours-long spray of icy particles that blasted away into space. Cameras at the station have since located a small pinhole, indicating an impact.
With most, if not all, of the coolant gone, temperatures in the idle spacecraft settled at around 86 degrees. The Russians say this is within “acceptable limits”, but it is not clear how that might change when the ship is commissioned for re-entry and landing.
If engineers conclude the craft is still flight-worthy, cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitry Petlin, along with NASA astronaut Frank Rubio, can use it as planned to return to Earth in late March to finish 187 days in space.
If investigators determine that a lack of coolant precludes a safe return, a Soyuz already being prepared for its next crew rotation mission can be launched ahead of schedule with no one on board. Soyuz, like all Russian crew ships, is designed for independent docking with the space station.
Under this scenario, the damaged Soyuz MS-22/68S could be jettisoned early and Prokopyev, Petelin and Rubio could go home in the replacement ship. It is not yet known whether they will return home early, on time or after a long stay.
Meanwhile, Borisov told Izvestia: “There is no hurry.”
“If the situation is under control and we are fully confident in the spacecraft’s working ability, it will be used for the record crew landing as planned in March,” he said. “If the situation develops under a different scenario, we of course have backup options.”
He was referring to the Soyuz MS-23/69S spacecraft already at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan undergoing regular pre-flight tests for its March 16 launch, carrying cosmonauts Oleg Kononenko and Nikolai Chubb and NASA cosmonaut Loral O’Hara to the space station. They will replace Prokopyev, Betlin and Rubio in a normal crew rotation sequence.
Docked at the International Space Station, a Russian Soyuz ferry ship is spewing particles of an unknown substance, presumably a cryogenic liquid, into space, forcing two astronauts to cancel a spacewalk scheduled for tonight. Watch live: https://t.co/2lnIsF9yec pic.twitter.com/PeVYnYldon
– SpaceflightNow (@SpaceflightNow) December 15, 2022
If the damaged MS-22 spacecraft cannot be used to bring Prokopyev and his colleagues home as planned on March 28, the MS-23 spacecraft can be launched without a crew to replace it.
In this case, Kononenko, Chub and O’Hara would have to wait for a flight downstream, but how the ever-complicated crew rotation schedule would be implemented under this scenario is not yet known.
The coolant leak occurred last Wednesday as Prokopyev and Petlin were preparing to float out of the station on an already-planned spacewalk. Russian flight controllers noticed a sudden drop in pressure in the Soyuz coolant line. Cameras aboard the lab have detected a thick stream of icy particles flowing away into space, indicating a massive leak of some kind.
The leak continued for several hours, draining most, if not all, of the coolant into the radiator loop.
Flight controllers telemetry and ran tests of the vehicle’s propulsion system on Saturday and found no further problems. The only problem seems to be the loss of coolant.
Overnight Sunday, flight controllers at Johnson Space Center in Houston used the station’s Canadian-made robot arm to scan close-up with images. The arm’s camera detected what the sources said appeared to be a small hole. Izvestia quoted Borisov as saying the crater was “small”.
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