Leak of the Suyuz shuttle: Russia will send a rescue ship to the ISS

On December 14, the Russian Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft, currently docked to the ISS, suffered a spectacular coolant leak. After examining the state of the device, the Russian space agency (Roscosmos) announced on Wednesday January 11 that it deemed it preferable to send another vessel to bring back its occupants, namely the two Russian cosmonauts Sergei Prokopiev and Dmitri Peteline and American astronaut Frank Rubio.

“It was decided to send the Soyuz MS-23 spacecraft on February 20, 2023 without a passenger” but with hardware, Roscosmos said in a statement. The take-off of this device was initially scheduled for March 16 and it was to carry three other passengers to the ISS.

“We don’t call it a backup Soyuz,” said Joel Montalbano, ISS program manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “I call it a replacement Soyuz,” he continued, stating that “at the moment, the crew is safe on board the station”.

The date of the return of the two Russians and the American, initially scheduled for March 28, has not been announced. But their mission will be extended “of several months”, Sergei Krikaliov, Director of Manned Spaceflight at Roscosmos, told a press conference. The damaged ship will return to Earth empty, probably “mid or end of March”.

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Emergency scenarios just in case

Pending the arrival of the replacement ship, the Russian and American space agencies are studying several scenarios in the event of an emergency causing the need to evacuate the ISS. However, they underlined that this eventuality remained very unlikely.

The first scenario would be to bring the three crew members aboard the damaged Soyuz despite everything, despite concerns about the temperature that could be reached inside the spacecraft at the time of landing.

The second would be to decrease “thermal load” aboard the Soyuz “reducing the size of the crew” : one of the three passengers would then be brought back by a SpaceX Dragon ship, also docked at the ISS currently. Indeed, in addition to the three crew members who came aboard the Soyuz, the ISS currently has four other passengers, who arrived via this capsule which must also bring them back. The idea would then be to secure a fifth person on board, “in the area where the cargoes are normally located”, explained Joel Montalbano, head of the ISS program at NASA.

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A micrometeorite causing the damage

The leak was detected on December 14 on the Soyuz as the two Russian cosmonauts were about to perform a spacewalk. An initial assessment of the causes of the coolant leak raised the possibility of a naturally occurring micrometeorite impact, man-made debris in orbit, or hardware failure.

This Wednesday, Roscomos claimed that the version of a micrometeorite impact “had been experimentally proven”. According to the Russian agency, it opened a hole “less than a millimeter in diameter” in a cooling pipe. Given the speed at which experts believe the object hit the ISS, it can only be a “meteorite coming from a random direction”, and not a debris that would not have “could not stay in this orbit” at this speed, Sergei Krikaliov explained. The Russian agency ruled out any mechanical failure. Several technical problems, in addition to corruption scandals, have tarnished the reputation of the Russian space sector in recent years, which rivaled that of the United States at the time of the space race.

The disappointment of the Soyuz MS-22 illustrates in any case the risks that continue to exist, despite the technological advances that make it possible to calculate and anticipate the trajectory of cosmic objects, unless they are too small.

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(With AFP)