Russia said on Wednesday it will launch another Soyuz spacecraft next month to bring two of its astronauts and an American astronaut from the International Space Station after their original capsule hit a small meteorite and began leaking.
The leak last month came from a tiny hole — less than 1 millimeter wide — in the external cooling system of the Soyuz MS-22 capsule, one of two return capsules docked on the International Space Station that could bring crew members home.
“After analyzing the condition of the spacecraft, thermal calculations and technical documentation, it was concluded that MS-22 should land without a crew on board,” said Yuri Borisov, head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos.
Russia said a new capsule, Soyuz MS-23, will be sent on February 20 from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to replace the damaged Soyuz MS-22, which will be returned to Earth empty. The new capsule will also have to fly to the International Space Station on autopilot.
The original plan was to launch the MS-23 in March with two Russians and one American, replacing the three already there. This new crew will now have to wait until late summer or fall to fly when another capsule is ready for them.
NASA says the crew is ‘safe aboard the space station’
Russian cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitry Petlin and American cosmonaut Francisco Rubio were scheduled to finish their mission in March, but now they will extend it for a few more months and return aboard MS-23.
“They are ready to take whatever decision we make for them,” Joel Montalbano, program manager for the International Space Station at NASA, said at a news conference. “Maybe I’ll have to eat more ice cream to reward them,” he added.
If there is an emergency in the meantime, Roscosmos said it will look into whether the MS-22 spacecraft could be used to rescue the crew. In this scenario, temperatures in the pod can reach unhealthy levels of 30-40 degrees Celsius.
“In an emergency, when the crew faces a real threat to life on the station, the risk of remaining on the station is probably higher than crashing into an unsanitary Soyuz,” said Sergey Krikalev, Russia’s head of manned space. programs, he said.
NASA participated in all discussions and approved the plan.
“At the moment, the crew is safely aboard the space station,” said Joel Montalbano, NASA’s Space Station Program Manager. “There is no immediate need for the crew to go home today.”
There are a total of seven residents of the space station, and the crew cannot rely on MS-22 if they encounter another emergency, such as a fire or decompression.
Along with Prokopyev, Betlin, and Rubio, the space station is home to NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada, Russia’s Anna Kikina, and Japan’s Koichi Wakata, who rode a SpaceX capsule last October.
NASA said it is considering the possibility of adding an additional crew to the capsule – the only other “lifeboat” vehicle currently docked at the station.
“We are ready for this situation,” says Roscosmos.
The accident disrupted Russia’s International Space Station activities, forcing the cosmonauts to cancel spacewalks while officials focused on the leaky capsule.
Both NASA and Roscosmos believe the leak was caused by a small meteorite — a small particle of space rock — that collided with the capsule at high speed.
“Space is not a safe place, it is not a safe environment. We have meteorites, we have a vacuum and we have a high temperature and we have complex devices that can fail,” Krikalev said.
“Now we are facing one of the scenarios… We are prepared for this situation.”
The case comes during the 11th month of Russia’s war against Ukraine, which has sparked the biggest crisis in relations between Moscow and the West since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
Moscow has used its space program since the invasion in February to show support for its forces.
The Soyuz rocket launched in March 2022 was decorated with a capital letter “Z”, known as the main symbol of Russia’s aggression against its neighbor.
In early July 2022, cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveyev and Sergey Korsakov shared photos of themselves aboard the International Space Station holding the flags of the so-called “people’s republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk, two regions in Ukraine’s Donbass that Russia unilaterally annexed despite . The protests of the international community.
On December 21, Dmitry Rogozin, former director of Roscosmos and close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was seriously injured while celebrating his birthday in Moscow-occupied Donetsk.
Rogozin, who was replaced at the helm of Russia’s National Space Agency on July 16, 2022, is known as one of the staunchest supporters of the war in Ukraine.
The new president, Yuri Borisov, has previously said that Russia plans to withdraw from the International Space Station program in 2024 and build its own space station.
Neither Roscosmos nor NASA have made any comments regarding the ongoing tensions between Moscow and Washington in the context of the Soyuz crisis.