Russians assess the flight capability of a damaged Soyuz

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 daily Izvestia.

Soyuz MS-22/68S crew ferry likely hit last Wednesday by a small piece of space debris or a micrometeoroid that ruptured a coolant line, resulting in an hour-long spray of icy particles that spilled out into space. Cameras on the station have since located a small puncture, indicating an impact.

The suspected impact of a small piece of space debris or a micrometeoroid is believed to have ruptured a coolant line on a Russian Soyuz ferry last Wednesday, triggering a massive leak, seen here as a cloud of icy flakes. Russian engineers are evaluating whether the ship can bring three space station crew members home at the end of March as planned or whether a replacement Soyuz may need to be launched. / Credit: NASATV

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

If engineers conclude that the vehicle is still airworthy, cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin, as well as NASA astronaut Frank Rubio, could use it as planned to return to Earth in late March to conclude a stay of 187 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.”

The damaged Soyuz MS-22/68S crew ship, its solar wings deployed, is moored in the Earth-facing port of the Russian Rassvet module (bottom center).  The Russian Nauka laboratory module is visible on the right.  / Credit: NASA

The damaged Soyuz MS-22/68S crew ship, its solar wings deployed, is moored in the Earth-facing port of the Russian Rassvet module (bottom center). The Russian Nauka laboratory module is visible on the 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, carrying 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 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. 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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