There are currently seven people on the International Space Station. (archive image)
Another Soyuz rocket will fly to the ISS on Feb. 20 to return two Russian cosmonauts and a US astronaut to Earth, Roscosmos said on Wednesday. The spaceship with the leak should therefore fly back without a crew.
The leak was discovered on December 14 in the spacecraft docked with the ISS. According to Roscosmos, the damage to the Soyuz MS-22 is due to the impact of a small meteorite, which caused a hole in the cooling system less than a millimeter in diameter.
Images from the US space agency Nasa showed in mid-December how large quantities of white particles – apparently the coolant – escaped from the spacecraft like snow. The Russian space agency had the extent of the damage assessed by a commission. The investigation showed that the problems were not caused by a technical defect. This has been proven experimentally.
Originally, the Russian cosmonauts Sergei Prokopjew and Dmitri Petelin and their US colleague Frank Rubio wanted to fly back to Earth with the MS-22. Now the astronauts who have been stationed on the ISS since September are to be picked up by the MS-23 instead. According to Roskosmos, the Soyuz rocket completed the outward flight to the ISS unmanned on February 20, it only takes material on board. In the case of the MS-22, the return flight to earth is to be carried out without a crew because of its damage.
Russia’s manned space program chief Sergei Krikalev said the decision to use the MS-23 for the return flight was made because of concerns about high temperatures in the MS-22. “The main problem with landing the current crewed Soyuz would be the thermal conditions because we have lost the ability to remove heat,” he said.
“We don’t call it a rescue Soyuz,” said Joel Montalbano, ISS program manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “I call it a spare Soyuz.” The crew is currently “safe on board the space station”.
The rescue operation upsets the schedule of the Russian space agency. Originally, the MS-23 was not supposed to fly to the ISS until March 16, taking the two Russians Oleg Kononenko and Nikolai Tschub and their US colleague Loral O’Haradrei with them.
When exactly the spaceship is supposed to bring Prokopjew, Petelin and Rubio back to earth was not announced. All it said was that their mission would be “extended”. The three astronauts were originally supposed to return home in March. There are currently seven crew members on the ISS. A German astronaut is not among them.
Roskosmos and Nasa had initially assured that the leak in the Soyuz rocket posed no danger to the ISS crew. Since the MS-22 is defective, there is only one spaceship with only four seats available for the currently seven crew members of the space station.
In the event of an emergency that makes it necessary to evacuate the ISS, the astronauts may have to resort to the spacecraft with the leak. Another possibility, according to Nasa and Roskosmos, is to reduce the “thermal load” on board the Soyuz by “reducing the crew”. One or more passengers could then be brought back by a SpaceX spacecraft also docked at the ISS.
Since the start of the Russian offensive in Ukraine in February last year, space has been one of the few areas where Russia and the US are still cooperating. The ISS has been in operation since 1998.