Russians assess the flightworthiness of the damaged Soyuz

Russian managers are assessing whether a damaged Soyuz spacecraft docked at the International Space Station can safely transport its crew of three to Earth by the end of March, as planned, or whether a replacement should be launched to take its place, officials said Monday. .

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

The Soyuz MS-22/68S crew ferry ship was probably hit last Wednesday by a small piece of space debris or a micrometeoroid that ruptured a coolant pipe, resulting in hours of a haze of icy particles spewing into space. Cameras at the station have since found a small puncture, suggesting an impact.

The suspected impact of a small piece of space debris or a micrometeoroid last Wednesday is believed to have ruptured a coolant pipe on a Russian Soyuz ferry ship, causing a massive leak, seen here as a cloud of icy flakes.  Russian engineers are assessing whether the ship will be able to bring home three crewmembers from the space station by the end of March, as planned, or whether a replacement Soyuz may need to be launched.  / Credit: NASA TV

The suspected impact of a small piece of space debris or a micrometeoroid last Wednesday is believed to have ruptured a coolant pipe on a Russian Soyuz ferry ship, causing a massive leak, seen here as a cloud of icy flakes. Russian engineers are assessing whether the ship will be able to bring home three crewmembers from the space station by the end of March, as planned, or whether a replacement Soyuz may need to be launched. / Credit: NASA TV

With most, if not all, of the coolant gone, temperatures inside the dormant spacecraft have stabilized at around 86 degrees. The Russians say this is within “acceptable limits,” but it’s not clear how that might change when the ship is powered up for reentry and landing.

If the engineers conclude the vehicle is still flyworthy, cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin, along with NASA astronaut Frank Rubio, could use it as planned to return to Earth in late March to complete a 187-day stay. complete in space.

If the researchers determine that the lack of coolant is preventing a safe return, a Soyuz already being prepared for the next crew rotation mission could launch ahead of schedule with no one on board. That Soyuz, like all Russian crew ships, is designed for autonomous dockings with the space station.

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

Meanwhile, “there is no rush,” Borisov told Izvestia.

“Once the situation is under control and we have full confidence in the work capacity of the spacecraft, it will be used for the standard crew descent, as planned in March,” he said. “If the situation develops under a different scenario, of course we have backup options.”

The damaged Soyuz MS-22/68S crewship, with solar wings extended, is docked at the Earth-facing port of Russia's Rassvet module (bottom center).  The Russian Nauka laboratory module is visible at right.  / Credit: NASA

The damaged Soyuz MS-22/68S crewship, with solar wings extended, is docked at the Earth-facing port of Russia’s Rassvet module (bottom center). The Russian Nauka laboratory module is visible at right. / Credit: NASA

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, with cosmonauts Oleg Kononenko, Nikolai Chub and NASA astronaut Loral O’Hara to the space station. They will replace Prokopyev, Petelin and Rubio.

If the damaged MS-22 spacecraft cannot be used to deliver Prokopyev and his crewmates home as planned on March 28, the MS-23 spacecraft could launch without a crew to take its place.

In that case, Kononenko, Chub and O’Hara would have to wait for a downstream flight, but how the ever-convoluted roster of crew changes plays out in that scenario isn’t yet known.

The coolant leak originated last Wednesday as Prokopyev and Petelin were preparing to float outside the station for an already planned spacewalk. Flight controllers studied telemetry and performed tests of the vehicle’s propulsion system on Saturday and found no other problems. The only problem seems to be the loss of coolant.

On Sunday night, flight controllers from the Johnson Space Center in Houston used the station’s Canadian-built robotic arm to conduct a close-up photo survey. The arm’s camera spotted what sources say appeared to be a small puncture. Borisov was quoted by Izvestia as saying the hole was “tiny”.

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