Russian engineers continue assessment of Soyuz coolant leaks

Temperatures in a Russian Soyuz ferry docked at the International Space Station – a lifeboat for three of the lab’s seven crew members – remain within safe limits despite a dramatic leak overnight in the spacecraft’s cooling system, officials said Thursday.

The leak developed around 7:45 p.m. EST Wednesday amid preparations for a planned 6-hour, 40-minute spacewalk by cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitry Petelin to relocate a radiator from the Rassvet module, where the spacecraft spacecraft Soyuz MS-22/68S is docked. , to the new Nauka laboratory module.

With the cosmonauts outfitted in the Poisk airlock compartment, Russian flight controllers noted a low pressure warning in a Soyuz outer cooling loop, then saw a sudden flow of coolant escaping into space in a rain of icy particles.

The leak looked particularly dramatic in certain lighting conditions, appearing in a NASA television camera view as a jet shower of countless glowing particles, presumably frozen coolant. The leak was not clearly visible in another view, from another angle and with different lighting.

Cosmonaut Anna Kikina, working inside the Russian Nauka laboratory module (left), uses a European-made robotic arm to inspect the Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft (right) after it caused a leak of apparent coolant, forcing Russian flight controllers to cancel an already planned spacewalk. December 14, 2022. / Credit: NASA TV

But there was no doubt that a major leak was present. It lasted several hours and Russian flight controllers canceled the spacewalk while engineers monitored telemetry and video.

More than 12 hours later, the origin and cause of the leak remained unclear. The options ranged from a space debris impact to some isolated hardware failure.

The Soyuz carried Prokopyev, Petelin and NASA astronaut Frank Rubio to the space station on September 21, and it is necessary to bring them back to Earth at the end of March. In the meantime, the ship serves as a lifeboat in case of an emergency that could force the trio to abandon the ISS sooner than expected.

Cooling systems are essential for all spacecraft to cope with a wide range of temperatures, such as when vehicles are in direct sunlight, in the cold darkness of Earth’s shadow, or during reentry. It’s not yet known how much coolant, if any, might remain in the system, or how temperatures will react to the various angles of the sun in the station’s orbit.

But telemetry following the leak showed temperatures in the Soyuz spacecraft remained within safe limits.

Russia’s Roscosmos space agency is “closely monitoring Soyuz spacecraft temperatures, which remain within acceptable limits,” NASA said in a blog post on Thursday. “NASA and Roscosmos continue to coordinate external imaging and inspection plans to help assess the location of the external leak.”

Although NASA did not address the issue directly, the Soyuz is likely airworthy as is, but no further details were immediately available.

On Wednesday night, cosmonaut Anna Kikina, who flew to the ISS aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon ferry with three NASA-sponsored crewmates, used a new robotic arm built by the European Space Agency on the Nauka module to visually inspect the Soyuz.

NASA said an additional inspection by the Canadian-made robotic arm on the US segment of the lab complex was planned. In the meantime, Crew Dragon astronaut Josh Cassada and Rubio are continuing with plans to conduct their own spacewalk on Monday to continue the ongoing upgrade to the solar panel system.

“The crew aboard the station ended their normal operations on Thursday, including their participation in scientific surveys and research,” NASA reported. “Specialists are working on robotic plans ahead of Monday’s spacewalk to best optimize upcoming station operations and Soyuz inspection.”

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