(Moscow) Russia announced on Wednesday that it will send a rescue craft to the International Space Station on February 20 to bring back three crew members whose aircraft was damaged by an impact last month.
The ship Soyuz MS-22currently docked to the ISS, suffered a spectacular coolant leak in mid-December, the images showing a jet of particles escaping into space from the rear of the Russian vehicle.
After examining the state of the device, the Russian space agency (Roscosmos) announced on Wednesday that it considered it preferable to send another spacecraft, the Soyuz MS-23to bring back the two Russian cosmonauts Sergei Prokopiev and Dmitri Peteline, as well as the American astronaut Frank Rubio.
“It was decided to send the spacecraft Soyuz MS-23 February 20, 2023 without passengers” but with equipment, 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.
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 “for several months”, indicated during a press conference the director of manned flights at Roscosmos, Sergei Krikaliov.
In addition, the damaged ship will return to Earth empty, probably “mid- or end of March”, he said.
Pending the arrival of the replacement vessel, in the event of an emergency causing the need to evacuate the ISS, the Russian and American space agencies are studying several scenarios. They underlined that this eventuality remained highly 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 reduce the “thermal load” on board the Soyuz by “reducing the size of the crew”.
One of the three passengers would then be brought back by a SpaceX vessel, also currently docked with the ISS.
In fact, in addition to the three crew members who came on board the Soyuzthe ISS currently has four other passengers, who arrived aboard this capsule Dragon from SpaceX – which must also bring them back.
The idea would therefore be to secure a fifth person on board, “in the area where cargo is normally located”, explained Joel Montalbano, ISS program manager at NASA.
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.
On Wednesday, Roscomos claimed the version of a micrometeorite impact “has 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 piece of debris that would “not have been able to stay in this orbit” at this speed, Sergei Krikaliov explained.
The Russian agency ruled out any mechanical failure.
For Vitali Egorov, Russian specialist in space issues, the decisions announced Wednesday by Roscosmos are “optimal to ensure the safety of (the crew) and minimize the damage inflicted on the space program”.
The ISS has been one of the few remaining fields of cooperation between Moscow and Washington since the start of the Russian offensive in Ukraine, launched on February 24, and the Western sanctions that followed.
The head of Roscosmos, Yuri Borissov, had paid tribute last month to the solidarity of the Americans on board the ISS, who “reached out their hand to help us”, at a time when relations between the Kremlin and the House- Blanche are at their lowest.
The International Space Station was launched in 1998 at a time of US-Russian cooperation, following the space race the two countries had engaged in during the Cold War.
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 Soyuz MS-22 illustrates the risks that continue to exist, despite technological advances that make it possible to calculate and anticipate the trajectory of cosmic objects, unless they are too small.