The Russian Space Agency said it is considering a “rescue” plan to bring three crew members home to the International Space Station (ISS) ahead of schedule.
This is because the Soyuz MS-22 capsule developed a coolant leak during docking at the orbital site on December 14.
A cooling line in the capsule’s external cooler sustained a small hole, according to officials from NASA and the Russian space agency Roscosmos.
An empty capsule might be launched for the crew to retrieve, or they could return to Earth in the faulty Soyuz, though this seems less likely.
Last week, a NASA live webcast showed what appeared to be snowflake-like particles emitting from the back of the Soyuz spacecraft (pictured)
The leak lasted for hours and emptied the coolant from the radiator, which is used to regulate temperatures inside the spacecraft’s crew cabin. Pictured: the European robotic arm being used to investigate the leak on the Soyuz capsule
What are soy capsules?
Soyuz is a family of spacecraft used to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS).
Built for the Soviet space program, it has been in operation since the 1960s, making more than 140 flights.
It consists of an orbital module that accommodates astronauts en route, a re-entry module that can return them to Earth and a cylindrical service module that contains the instruments and engines.
Last week, a NASA live webcast showed what appeared to be a wave of snow-like particles falling from the back of the Soyuz spacecraft.
The leak lasted for hours and emptied the coolant from the radiator, which is used to regulate temperatures inside the spacecraft’s crew cabin.
At the time, Russian cosmonauts Sergei Prokopyev and Dmitry Petlin were poised for a routine spacewalk, but the leak forced mission controllers in Moscow to cancel it.
NASA stated that none of the station’s crew were in any immediate danger from this leak, and the capsule is currently being ventilated with air from the International Space Station.
According to the US space agency, capsule temperatures remain “within acceptable limits” and recent testing of the thrusters went off without a hitch.
However, the coolant system works to prevent overheating of the capsule crew compartment.
Sergei Krikalev, Russia’s head of manned space programs, said the temperature would rise rapidly if the station’s hatch was closed.
There’s a dedicated lifeboat aboard the International Space Station that they can use, or they could theoretically go home in an unfastened Soyuz capsule (pictured)
Roscosmos cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitry Petlin conduct a space walk outside the International Space Station, November 17, 2022
The leak forced the suspension of all future spacewalks for Roscosmos as officials in Moscow shifted their focus to the leaking MS-22.
No final decision has been made on the exact means of returning Prokopyev, Beitlin and, if necessary, a third Russian cosmonaut to Earth.
There is a dedicated lifeboat aboard the International Space Station that they can use, or they could theoretically return home to the unfixed Soyuz.
But sending the doomed capsule back to Earth with humans on board and without most of the coolant seemed an unlikely option.
Another Soyuz capsule is in line to ferry the Russian crew coming to the station in March, and this one may instead be sent without a drone to bring the trio back.
This will provide “a health vehicle on board the station to be able to rescue the crew,” Krikalev said.
The possibility of the SpaceX Crew Dragon being sent to the rescue was not mentioned.
The ISS (pictured), a science laboratory that spans the length of a football field, orbits about 250 miles (400 kilometers) above Earth
Prokopyev and Betlin flew the Soyuz MS-22 capsule to the International Space Station with American astronaut Frank Rubio in September.
They were originally scheduled to return home on the same spacecraft in March, but their return may be pushed forward by two or three weeks if an empty crew capsule is sent for them.
Determining the cause of the leak can lead to decisions on the best way to bring the crew back, and officials are still trying to figure out what happened.
Last week, Krikalev said the leak could have been caused by a micrometeor strike, but he and his counterparts at NASA left open the possibility of other culprits, such as an instrument failure or the impact of a small piece of space debris.
Prokopyev (centre) and Beitlin (left) flew aboard the Soyuz MS-22 capsule to the International Space Station with American astronaut Frank Rubio (right) in September
The recent Geminid meteor shower initially seemed to raise the possibility of a micrometeorite strike as the origin of the spill.
However, the leak was facing the wrong way for this to be the case, according to ISS Program Director Joel Montalbano, although a space rock could have come from another direction.
Four other ISS crew members—two more NASA, a third Russian astronaut, and a Japanese astronaut—flew to the ISS in October via the NASA-contracted SpaceX Crew Dragon, also still aboard, with their capsule parked in station.
The ISS, a science laboratory that stretches the length of a football field, orbits about 250 miles (400 kilometers) above Earth, and has been continuously busy for two decades.
It is administered by a partnership led by the United States and Russia which also includes Canada, Japan and 11 European countries.
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Explained: The $100 billion International Space Station sits 250 miles above Earth
The International Space Station (ISS) is a $100 billion (£80 billion) science and engineering laboratory that orbits 250 miles (400 km) above Earth.
It has been permanently staffed by a rotating crew of astronauts and cosmonauts since November 2000.
The crews came mainly from the United States and Russia, but the Japanese space agency JAXA and the European Space Agency ESA also sent astronauts.
The International Space Station has been continuously occupied for more than 20 years and has been spent with many new modules added and upgrades to the systems.
Research aboard the International Space Station often requires one or more of the unusual conditions found in low Earth orbit, such as low gravity or oxygen.
International Space Station studies investigated human research, space medicine, life sciences, physical sciences, astronomy, and meteorology.
The US space agency, NASA, spends around $3 billion (£2.4 billion) a year on the space station programme, with the remaining funding coming from international partners, including Europe, Russia and Japan.
So far, 244 individuals from 19 countries have visited the station, including eight nationals who have spent up to $50 million on their visit.
There is an ongoing debate about the station’s future after 2025, when it is believed that some of the original structure will reach the “end of life”.
Russia, the station’s primary partner, plans to launch its own orbital platform around that time, with Axiom Space, a private company, planning to send its own purely commercial-use modules to the station at the same time.
NASA, the European Space Agency, JAXA, and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) are working together to build a space station in orbit around the Moon, and Russia and China are working on a similar project, which would also include a base on the surface.
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