The Russian space agency plans to launch a spare Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station in late February this year to replace the damaged spacecraft currently docked at the station and bring three cosmonauts back to Earth, the Russian space agency said.
It is reported that the empty spare spacecraft is scheduled to be launched on February 20 to bring Russian cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin and NASA astronaut Frank Rubio back to Earth. The trio arrived at the International Space Station last September, but the Soyuz spacecraft they were aboard was damaged during the docking.
On Dec. 14, as the astronauts were preparing to leave the ISS airlock module for a spacewalk, ground controllers noticed a coolant leak that was spewing uncontrollably into space. Roscosmos immediately canceled the spacewalk and determined that the leak was coming from a small hole of about 1 mm in the spacecraft’s external cooling line.
The role of the coolant is to keep the spacecraft cabin at a relatively comfortable temperature. After the leak, astronauts inspected the leak using a camera on the end of the ISS’s robotic arm, while ground crews focused on the damaged area. Since then, Roscosmos has been working with NASA to try to determine whether the spacecraft is suitable for returning astronauts to Earth or if a backup needs to be launched. The team determined that without the coolant, temperatures inside the spacecraft could have exceeded 37 degrees Celsius. The high temperature and high humidity environment will affect the spacecraft computing system and make astronauts feel uncomfortable.
After the spare spacecraft arrived at the International Space Station, the Russian Space Agency plans to return the damaged Soyuz spacecraft to Earth in March this year with only some test items and cargo for further inspection after recovery.
There are currently 7 people on the International Space Station, 3 of whom arrived on a Soyuz spacecraft in September last year, and 4 arrived on a SpaceX manned Dragon spacecraft in October last year. The Dragon spacecraft is still docked at the International Space Station.
Both NASA and the Russian space agency said that the current astronauts on the International Space Station are not in danger, and they continue to conduct scientific research and experiments such as planting tomatoes, while ground staff work on solutions to the problem of damage to the spacecraft.
Joel Montalbano, NASA’s International Space Station program manager, tried to downplay the seriousness of the problem in an interview Wednesday. He said, “There is no immediate need for the astronauts to return to Earth, and all systems are functioning normally.”
Sergei Krikalev, executive director of the Russian space agency’s human spaceflight program, said agencies knew it was extremely rare and were prepared, saying: “It’s something we envisioned.” Scenarios, now we are basically working from the procedures.”
Krikalev said it was “the first time” in his memory that he had to launch a replacement spacecraft to the ISS. “We never really needed to do that,” he said.
NASA and Roscosmos are also working on contingency plans for astronauts who need to evacuate the International Space Station until a backup spacecraft arrives. Astronauts carrying the Soyuz spacecraft can still board the spacecraft and use it as a lifeboat without returning to Earth’s atmosphere. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft is also likely to add an astronaut.
Montalbano said the plan now is to have the staff “on their own ships.” “But at the same time, we’ve been in talks with SpaceX about what we can do with SpaceX vehicles.”
Krikalev said the investigation concluded that the damage to the spacecraft was a micrometeoroid about 1 millimeter in diameter traveling at about 7 kilometers per second. The micrometeoroid hit the radiator of the Soyuz spacecraft, causing a coolant leak. The leak was located at the spacecraft’s farthest docking port from the ISS, making repairs in space largely impossible. “Not only do you have to patch a hole, you also have to inject coolant into the radiator,” Krikalev said. “It’s a very difficult and risky process, and the risk of directly replacing the spacecraft is much smaller.”
Based on the direction and speed, Krikalev said the culprit was unlikely to be rocket components or orbital debris from other man-made spacecraft. “Another man-made object in this orbit cannot exist because it would not stay in this orbit if it had such a high velocity,” Krikalev said. “It will leave.”
NASA officials agree with this claim. Montalbano said there were no anomalies “during the craft’s construction.”
Overall, according to Montalbano, NASA and Roscosmos’ “technical and management teams work extremely well together. It’s a true testament to our partnership.”
Krikalev said the mission of the three cosmonauts would be extended by several months due to the launch of a spare spacecraft. Still, it’s unclear how launching a replacement spacecraft would affect NASA’s launch plans. Currently, SpaceX expects to deliver another crew to the International Space Station in February. “It will be a few weeks before we have a series of new launch dates,” Montalbano said.
He said that the astronauts on the International Space Station are in good spirits and continue to work normally. But he added: “I might have to ship some more ice cream to reward them.”