Roscosmos to Decide Next Week if Soyuz MS-22 is Safe Enough

Roscosmos to Decide Next Week if Soyuz MS-22 is Safe Enough

The head of Russia’s space agency said today a decision will be made next week on what to do about the damaged Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft docked at the International Space Station. Soyuz MS-22 is the ride home for two Russian cosmonauts and an American astronaut as well as their lifeboat while they’re onboard. Last week all the coolant leaked out of an exterior cooling loop due to a tiny hole that could have been caused by a micrometeoroid or space debris.

Yuri Borisov, Director General of Russia’s state space corporation Roscosmos, said two working groups are looking at options and a decision will be made by December 27 on the path forward. He stressed there is “no hurry.”

At 7:45 pm Eastern Standard Time on Wednesday, December 14 (00:45 UTC Thursday, December 15), just as cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin were about to exit an airlock to begin a spacewalk, a shower of particles began spewing from the Soyuz spacecraft docked outside. It intensified as time passed. The spacewalk was cancelled.

Screengrab from NASA TV about 9:30 pm EST December 14, 2022  showing particles emanating from the Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft.
Screengrab from NASA TV about 10:45 pm EST December 14, 2022 as the leak rate appeared to intensify.

NASA later said all the coolant had leaked out by December 15 at 1:30 pm EST, about 18 hours after it began.

The coolant loop is part of a system in the instrumentation and propulsion module that controls the temperature inside the Soyuz both for human comfort and to protect electronics like computers.

A Russian Soyuz capsule (left) attached to the International Space Station is shown next to a Northrop Grumman Cygnus cargo spacecraft (right) in this June 6, 2019 NASA photo. The Soyuz instrumentation and equipment module is the one at the top with the rectangular solar arrays.

Roscosmos reports that the temperature inside Soyuz has stabilized at about 30° Celsius (86° Fahrenheit), within acceptable limits. A test of Soyuz’s propulsion system on Friday turned up no problems.

The site of the leak was inspected using cameras on the European Robotic Arm attached to Russia’s Nauka science module on the Russian segment of the space station, as well as Canadarm2 on the U.S. segment.

NASA graphic of the International Space Station and the location of the “visiting vehicles” like Soyuz MS-22. Progress spacecraft are Russian cargo resupply vehicles. Cygnus-18 and Cargo Dragon are U.S. cargo resupply vehicles. Crew-5 Dragon and Soyuz MS-22 are the two ferry spacecraft for the ISS crew of three Russians, three Americans, and one Japanese currently aboard.

Borisov said a 0.8 mm (0.03 inch) hole was observed.  Russia’s news agency TASS reported: “According to preliminary data, the damage could have been caused by a micrometeoroid or space debris.”

The two working groups will determine whether Soyuz MS-22 remains safe enough to bring Prokopyev, Petelin and Rubio back to Earth in March or if a replacement Soyuz needs to be sent up.  Borisov said the next Soyuz in queue, Soyuz MS-23, could be ready by February 19. It already is in testing at the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

Soyuz can fly to the ISS autonomously, so it would be relatively routine for it to dock at one port and then have Soyuz MS-22 undock and return to Earth empty. The instrument module detaches from the section of Soyuz that carries the crew and burns up in the atmosphere. Whatever inspections they might want to do to definitively determine if it was either a micrometeroid or a piece of space debris will have to be done before it undocks.

In a blog post this evening, for example, NASA said “Roscosmos is evaluating the imagery to determine if this hole could have resulted from micrometeoroid debris or if it is one of the pre-manufactured radiator vent holes.” The agency also noted there is “discoloration” on the surface of the radiator around the hole.


This article has been updated.

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