The Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft that is currently in service SSIIn mid-December, it experienced a spectacular coolant leak showing a jet of particles escaping into space from the back of a Russian vehicle.
After analyzing the condition of the device, the Russian space agency Roscosmos announced on Wednesday that it considered it appropriate to send another spacecraft, Soyuz MS-23, to return two Russian cosmonauts Sergei Prokopiev and Dmitry Petelin, as well as American astronaut Frank. Rubio.
“We have decided to launch the Soyuz MS-23 spacecraft without passengers but with equipment on February 20, 2023,” Roscosmos said in a statement. The plane was originally scheduled to take off on March 16 and was supposed to carry three other passengers. SSI.
“We don’t call it a backup Soyuz,” program manager Joel Montalbano said. SSIat NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “I call it the replacement Soyuz. »
“For now, the crew is safely on the station,” he continued.
The date of the return of the two Russians and an American, originally scheduled for March 28, is unknown. However, their mission will last “several months”, Roscosmos manned flight director Sergei Krikalyov said at a press conference.
In addition, the damaged spacecraft will return to Earth empty, probably “in mid-to-late March,” he said.
Plan for the worst
While awaiting the arrival of a replacement spacecraft, the Russian and American space agencies are studying several scenarios in the event of an emergency that would require an evacuation. SSI. They emphasized that this possibility is highly unlikely.
The first scenario involves the return of three crew members aboard the damaged Soyuz despite concerns about the temperatures that could be reached inside the spacecraft during landing.
The second scenario consists of reducing the “thermal load” on board the Soyuz by “reducing the size of the crew”.
After that, one of the three passengers will be returned by the SpaceX spacecraft, which will also be loaded onto it SSICurrently.
Indeed, apart from the three crew members who came aboard the Soyuz, SSIIt currently has four more passengers who have landed on the SpaceX Dragon capsule, which they also need to return.
Therefore, the idea would be to protect the fifth person on board, “in the area where the cargo is usually located”, explained Joel Montalbano, the program manager. SSIat NASA.
The leak was discovered on December 14 aboard the Soyuz, when two Russian cosmonauts were about to take a spacewalk.
Initial assessments of the cause of the coolant leak raised the possibility of a naturally occurring micrometeorite impact, collision with man-made debris in orbit, or hardware failure.
Roskomos said on Wednesday that the micrometeorite impact version was “experimentally confirmed”. According to the Russian agency, he opened a hole “less than a millimeter in diameter” in the cooling pipe.
Given the speed at which experts believe the object hit SSIIt could just be a “meteorite from a random direction” and not a piece of debris that “couldn’t stay in that orbit” at that speed, explained Sergey Krikalyov.
The Russian agency ruled out any mechanical failure.
For Vitaly Egorov, a Russian space specialist, the decisions announced by Roscosmos on Wednesday are “optimal for ensuring security. [l’équipage] and minimizing damage to the space program.”
The SSIIt represents one of the rare areas of cooperation that remains between Moscow and Washington since the February 24 launch of Russia’s offensive in Ukraine and Western sanctions.
Last month, Roscosmos chief Yuri Borisov paid tribute to the solidarity of the Americans on board. SSIwho “reached out to help us” at a time when relations between the Kremlin and the White House are at an all-time low.
The International Space Station was launched in 1998 as part of the US-Russia collaboration, following the Cold War-era space race between the two countries.
Several technical problems, in addition to corruption scandals, have tarnished the reputation of Russia’s space sector in recent years, which has been competing with the United States in the space race.
The Soyuz MS-22 disappointment illustrates the risks that continue to exist despite technological advances that make it possible to calculate and predict the trajectory of space objects if they are too small.