Russian spacecraft leak sparks delay of rescue ship

NASA: Particles leak from Soyuz spacecraft

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The launch of a “rescue ship” to the International Space Station (ISS) to bring home three astronauts has been postponed. Their return vehicle had been damaged by a tiny meteoroid and now another issue with a Russian capsule has stalled the mission. A newly developed coolant leak is blamed as the issue on this occasion. The Progress MS-21 (aka Progress 82) supply ship has been docked with the orbital laboratory since late October last year — having carried up 5,560 lbs in food, water and fuel. Prior to the detection of the leak, the capsule had already been refilled with waste, in preparation for being dispatched from the ISS on February 15 to burn up on re-entry.

In a statement issued on the weekend, Roscosmos — Russia’s State Space Corporation — said that as the hatch connecting the Progress MS-21 and the ISS had been sealed, the leak in the former would not affect the orbiting laboratory.

In fact, another supply ship bearing nearly three tons of food, water and fuel successfully docked at the station on Saturday shortly before the leak in its predecessor was announced.

Roscosmos said: “The temperature and pressure on board the station are within norms and there is no danger to the health and safety of the crew.”

According to Roscosmos’ head of crewed programs, Sergei Krikalev, it was not the entire cargo ship that lost pressure, but the craft’s coolant loop — the same system that got damaged on the Soyuz MS-22 crew capsule back in December last year.

That leak, which experts attributed to a micro-meteorite impact, had already affected plans to return the craft’s crew of Commander Sergey Prokopyev and Flight Engineer Dmitry Petelin of Roscosmos and NASA Flight Engineer Francisco Rubio back to Earth.

They were launched to the ISS last September from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Instead of returning in the same capsule in March as originally intended, the Soyuz MS-22 will now be sent back home empty.

As the Soyuz MS-22 has been deemed potentially unsafe to travel in, the ISS now finds itself short of “lifeboats” in the event of an emergency — with only one viable capsule capable of evacuating four people, but there are currently seven astronauts on the station.

Prokopyev, Petelin and Rubio were joined on board the laboratory in October by NASA’s Josh Cassada and Nicole Mann, Russia’s Anna Kikina, and Japan’s Koichi Wakata.

To replace the faulty “lifeboat”, Roscosmos had planned to expedite the launch of the Soyuz MS-23 capsule, launching it without a crew next Monday.

In turn, the crew that had been scheduled to travel in that capsule and replace Prokopyev, Petelin and Rubio will now launch on the subsequent Soyuz MS-24 mission later this year.

Accordingly, Prokopyev, Petelin and Rubio will have to stay several more months on the station — pushing their mission duration up to nearly a year.

The new leak of the Progress MS-21 supply craft may compound these delays.

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As Roscosmos explained: “Until the cause of the emergency situation is determined […] a decision was made to postpone the launch of the Soyuz MS-23 spacecraft.”

The “rescue” capsule is now expected to launch sometime next month, while Roscosmos works together with NASA to probe the source of the coolant leakage — with a particular focus on the materials and tech used in manufacturing the capsules.

Mr Krikalev said: “We need to conduct a thorough analysis to make sure that it wouldn’t affect similar components that will be used in the future. This is the most important task.”

A spokesperson for NASA added: “Officials are monitoring all International Space Station systems and are not tracking any other issues.

“The crew, which was informed of the cooling loop leak, is in no danger and continuing with normal space station operations.”

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