Russians assess flight capability of damaged Soyuz docked at space station – Spaceflight Now


The Russian Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft is pictured docked to the International Space Station in this Oct. 8 file photo. Credit: NASA

Russian officials are assessing whether a damaged Soyuz spacecraft docked with the International Space Station can safely return its three-man crew to Earth in late March as planned or whether a replacement should be launched to replace it, officials said Monday.

“I believe that at the end of December, specialists (…) will decide how we are going to solve this situation,” said Yuri Borisov, director of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, in an interview with the Izvestia daily.

The Soyuz MS-22/68S crew ferry was likely hit last Wednesday by a small piece of space debris or a micrometeoroid that ruptured a coolant line, resulting in an ice-cold particle spray lasting for an hour that has spread through space. Cameras on the station have since located a small puncture indicating an impact.

With most, if not all, of its coolant, temperatures in the dormant spacecraft stabilized at around 86 degrees. The Russians say this is within “acceptable limits”, but it is unclear how this might change when the ship is powered up for re-entry and landing.

If engineers conclude the vehicle is still flight-worthy, cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitry Petelin, as well as NASA astronaut Frank Rubio, could use it as planned to return to Earth in late March to conclude a 187-week stay. days in space.

If investigators determine that lack of coolant is preventing a safe reentry, a Soyuz already in preparation for the next crew rotation mission could launch earlier than planned with no one on board. This Soyuz, like all Russian crew ships, is designed for autonomous dockings with the space station.

In this scenario, the damaged Soyuz MS-22/68S vehicle could be jettisoned ahead of time and Prokopyev, Petelin and Rubio could return home in the replacement ship. It is not yet clear whether they would return early, on time or after an extended stay.

In the meantime, “there is no rush,” Borisov told Izvestia.

“If the situation is under control and we are fully confident in the working ability of the spacecraft, it will be used for the standard crew descent as planned in March,” he said. “If the situation evolves into a different scenario, we of course have backup options.”

He was referring to the Soyuz MS-23/69S spacecraft already at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan undergoing normal pre-flight testing for launch on March 16, carrying cosmonauts Oleg Kononenko, Nikolai Chub and NASA astronaut Loral O ‘Hara to the space station. They will replace Prokopyev, Petelin and Rubio in a normal crew rotation sequence.

If the damaged MS-22 spacecraft cannot be used to bring Prokopyev and his crewmates back as planned on March 28, the MS-23 spacecraft could be launched uncrewed to replace it.

In this case, Kononenko, Chub and O’Hara would have to wait for a flight downstream, but it’s not yet clear how the ever-complex crew rotation schedule would play out in this scenario.

The coolant leak developed last Wednesday as Prokopyev and Petelin prepared to float outside the station for an already scheduled spacewalk. Russian flight controllers noticed a sudden drop in pressure in a Soyuz coolant line. Cameras aboard the lab spotted a thick jet of icy particles streaming through space, indicating some sort of massive leak.

The leak lasted several hours, draining most, if not all, of the coolant into a radiator loop.

Flight controllers studied telemetry and performed tests of the vehicle’s propulsion system on Saturday and found no other issues. The only problem seems to be the loss of coolant.

Overnight Sunday, flight controllers at Johnson Space Center in Houston used the station’s Canadian-built robotic arm to conduct a close-range photographic survey. The arm camera spotted what sources said appears to be a small puncture. Borisov was quoted by Izvestia as saying the hole was “tiny”.

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