Explained: Russia's plan to rescue its trapped astronauts from International Space Station
The need for a rescue mission arose after the Soyuz spacecraft docked at the space station began spewing a spray of white particles on 14 December, raising concerns that a portion of the capsule could overheat during flight, rendering the craft unsafe to transport astronauts back to Earth
The Russian space agency said Wednesday that it would send an empty Soyuz capsule to the International Space Station in February to replace a damaged spacecraft currently docked there.
“This is the next Soyuz that was scheduled to fly in March,” said Joel Montalbano, the space station program manager at NASA, during a news conference Wednesday. “It’ll just fly a little earlier.”
The need for a new Soyuz arose after the one docked at the space station started spewing a spray of white particles on 14 December. The particles turned out to be coolant from the spacecraft, raising questions about whether part of the capsule could overheat during flight, rendering the craft unsafe to transport astronauts back to Earth.
The Soyuz is the only model of spacecraft Russia is using to transport astronauts to and from the space station. The damaged vessel had arrived there in September, taking Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitriy Petelin of Russia and Frank Rubio of NASA to the space station. They had been scheduled to return to Earth in March, but the astronauts will now remain in orbit for several more months.
The next Soyuz, which would have carried three astronauts — two from Roscosmos, the state corporation that oversees Russia’s space industry, and one from NASA — will now launch with its seats empty on 20 February. After it reaches the space station, the damaged Soyuz will make a passengerless return to Earth, probably sometime in March. It is set to land at the usual return site in Kazakhstan, carrying some experiments and cargo.
After the leak occurred, astronauts used a camera at the end of a robotic arm on the space station to inspect the leak as engineers on the ground studied the damaged area.
Analysis indicated that with astronauts aboard, temperatures could rise to 100 degrees or hotter with high humidity within the confined space of the compromised Soyuz. That would not only pose dangers to the crew but could cause equipment like the Soyuz’s computer to malfunction.
Until the replacement Soyuz arrives, there is a higher level of risk in case of an emergency — like a large leak that might require an evacuation. The Soyuz and a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule serve as emergency lifeboats for the seven astronauts currently on the station. But officials were measured about the risks.
“I will tell you, there is no immediate need for the crew to come home today, that all the systems are operating,” Montalbano said.
During the news conference Wednesday, Sergei Krikalev, executive director of the human spaceflight programs for Roscosmos, said the astronauts would try to remain on the station. In case of a leak, for example, they could close hatches to minimise the leak. But in some situations, the risk of returning in a damaged Soyuz would be lower than the risk of not leaving.
“The Soyuz is not good for nominal re-entry,” Krikalev said, “but in case of emergency, with extra risk, we are going to use this Soyuz.”
Montalbano said there had been discussions with SpaceX to see whether, for an emergency evacuation, it would be possible for one of the Soyuz crew to travel back to Earth in the Crew Dragon.
Krikalev said an investigation concluded that the damage was caused by a micrometeoroid about one millimetre in diameter that was travelling about seven kilometres a second (more than 15,000 mph). The micrometeoroid hit a radiator on the Soyuz, causing the coolant leak.
The location of the leak, at the end of the Soyuz farthest from the docking port, made it essentially impossible to attempt a repair in space.
“You need not only to repair a hole but also to fill the radiator with a liquid, with a coolant,” Krikalev said. “And the procedure is so difficult and so risky that much less risk would be to just replace the vehicle.”
Krikalev said that based on the direction and speed, it could not have been a piece of orbital debris from a rocket part or some other human-made object. The question was prompted in part by a Russian antisatellite weapon test in November 2021 that created a debris cloud in orbit, which posed a risk to the space station.
“Some other object on this orbit cannot exist because if it has so high a velocity, it wouldn’t stay on this orbit,” Krikalev said. “It would leave this orbit.”
Montalbano said NASA agreed with that conclusion.
“We are in the process of getting some additional imagery, but so far we are in concurrence with Roscosmos,” he said.
The shuffling of Soyuz crafts in February and March will also likely lead to NASA adjusting the schedule for other missions to the space station, including the next SpaceX Crew Dragon launch.
“We’re going to take the next couple of weeks to kind of lay out the plan,” Montalbano said.
Kenneth Chang, c.2023 The New York Times Company
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