- NASA astronaut and Russian cosmonauts extend stay on ISS due to Soyuz leak.
- Empty Soyuz to be sent as replacement for return trip.
- Cause of leak determined to be micrometeoroid impact, damaged Soyuz to be used for data collection.
NASA astronaut Frank Rubio and Russian cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin were supposed to return to Earth on the Russian MS-22 Soyuz spacecraft in March, but a leak on the spacecraft has forced them to extend their stay on the International Space Station (ISS) for several more months.
NASA and Russian space officials have developed a plan to launch an empty Soyuz capsule to the ISS as a replacement for the damaged spacecraft, and bring the trio home later this year. NASA's Joel Montalbano, manager of the International Space Station program, said that the move is not a rescue mission, but a replacement for the damaged Soyuz. The empty spacecraft is set to launch on February 20th from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
The MS-22 Russian Soyuz spacecraft that transported Rubio, Prokopyev, and Petelin to the station back in September sprang a leak on Dec. 14. Coolant from an external coolant loop and radiator on the spacecraft spewed into space for hours just as Prokopyev and Petelin were preparing to conduct a spacewalk. Out of an abundance of caution to prevent any exposure to the leaking substance, the spacewalk was canceled.
On Dec. 18, NASA used the station’s robotic arm, Canadarm2, to provide images and conduct an additional external inspection of the damaged spacecraft. After a joint investigation conducted by NASA and Roscosmos, the space agencies are confident that the damage was caused by a micrometeoroid impact that resulted in a hole of about one millimeter in diameter in the coolant loop.
While it was determined that the leak posed no immediate threat to the station or crew, it left the MS-22 Soyuz spacecraft incapable of returning the trio of astronauts home safely. The damaged coolant loop meant that the temperature and humidity inside the cabin of the Soyuz spacecraft could skyrocket, making for a very uncomfortable and claustrophobic return trip home, typically taking about six hours to complete.
Initially set to fly the next rotation of Russian cosmonauts to the station in mid-March, the MS-23 Soyuz spacecraft is now being repurposed to launch as an empty lifeboat to ferry the MS-22 crew home later this year. Flying the MS-23 crew up as previously planned would have left the ISS in the same situation, with more people on board than available seats on functioning spacecraft to evacuate back to Earth in the unlikely event of a catastrophe.
That means that Rubio, Prokopyev, and Petelin will need to extend their space stay until September or until Roscosmos can build another Soyuz spacecraft to launch its next rotation of crew members, which are now stuck grounded for longer than anticipated. According to Montalbano, the space station remains safe, and the crew members are healthy enough to remain in space while this plan plays out.
"They're prepared to stay until the September launch date, if that's the case," said Montalbano. "If that launch date moves up earlier, then they're prepared to come home earlier."
Jokingly, he said: "I may have to find some more ice cream to reward them."
"The awesome thing about our crews are they're willing to help wherever we ask," he said. "They are ready to go with whatever decision that we give them."
Instead of returning crew as expected, roughly two weeks after the replacement MS-23 Soyuz docks at the station, the damaged MS-22 spacecraft will be outfitted as a cargo transport ship. NASA and Roscosmos intend to collect data about the conditions inside the cabin as the spacecraft makes its trip back for a landing in.