Russia announced on Wednesday that it would send a rescue craft to the International Space Station on Feb. 20 to bring back three crew members whose aircraft were damaged in an impact last month.
The Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft, currently docked on the ISS, suffered a spectacular coolant leak in mid-December, and images show 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 considers it preferable to send another spacecraft, the Soyuz MS-23, to bring back the two Russian cosmonauts Sergei Prokopiev and Dmitri Peteline, in addition to American astronaut Frank Rubio.
“It was decided to send the Soyuz MS-23 spacecraft on February 20, 2023 without passengers” but with equipment, Roscosmos said in a statement. The takeoff of this device was initially scheduled for March 16 and was supposed to carry another three passengers to the ISS.
The return date of the two Russians and the American, initially scheduled for March 28, has not been disclosed. But the mission will be extended “for several months”, said the director of manned flights at Roscosmos, Sergei Krikaliov, at a press conference.
Furthermore, the damaged spacecraft will return to Earth empty, likely in mid-to-late March, he said.
Pending the arrival of the replacement ship, in the event of an emergency that causes the evacuation of the ISS, the Russian and American space agencies are studying various scenarios. They underlined that this eventuality remained highly unlikely.
The first scenario would be to bring the three crew members aboard the damaged Soyuz after all, despite concerns about the temperature that could be reached inside the spacecraft at the time of landing.
The second would be to decrease the ‘thermal load’ on board the Soyuz, ‘reducing the size of the crew’.
One of the three passengers would be brought back by a SpaceX spacecraft, also currently docked at the ISS.
Indeed, in addition to the three crew members who boarded the Soyuz, the ISS currently has four more passengers, who arrived aboard this SpaceX Dragon capsule, which should also bring them back.
The idea would therefore be to ensure a fifth person on board, “in the area where the cargo is normally located”, explained Joel Montalbano, head of NASA’s ISS program.
impact of micrometeorites
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 natural impact from micrometeorites, artificial debris in orbit or hardware failure.
On Wednesday, Roscomos said the version of a micrometeorite impact ‘has been proven experimentally’. According to the Russian agency, it opened a hole ‘less than a millimeter in diameter’ in a cooling tube.
Given the speed at which experts believe the object hit the ISS, it can only be a ‘meteorite that came from a random direction’, not debris that ‘would not be able to stay in this orbit’ at this speed, Sergei Krikaliov explained.
The Russian agency ruled out any mechanical failure.
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 Feb. 24, and the Western sanctions that followed.
The head of Roscosmos, Yuri Borisov, last month paid tribute to the solidarity of Americans aboard the ISS, who “reached out to help us”, as relations between the Kremlin and the White House are at an all-time low.
The International Space Station was launched in 1998 at a time of US-Russia cooperation, following the space race the two countries engaged in during the Cold War.
Various technical problems, as well as corruption scandals, have tarnished the reputation of Russia’s space industry in recent years, which rivaled that of the United States at the time of the space race.