Soyuz MS-22 Decision Delayed to January

Soyuz MS-22 Decision Delayed to January

A decision on whether Soyuz MS-22 is safe enough to transport crews or must be replaced by a new vehicle will wait until January according to Russia’s space agency. Earlier, Roscosmos head Yuri Borisov said a decision would be made by today.

Just as two Russian cosmonauts were about to exit the International Space Station on December 14 EST (December 15 UTC) to conduct a spacewalk, the Soyuz MS-22 spaceship that was docked outside began spewing coolant from a leak in an external loop. The cosmonauts remained safely inside the airlock and the spacewalk was soon called off.

Particles of coolant spewing from the Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft are clealy visible in this screengrab from NASA TV, December 14, 2022 EST.

Since then, Roscosmos and NASA have been trying to determine what happened. Was the line hit by a micrometeorite, possibly from a meteor shower happening right then, or a piece of space debris, or was there a fault in the spacecraft itself?

Borisov said on December 19 that Roscosmos was setting up two working groups to determine what happened and recommend options by December 27.

In a joint media briefing three days later, Sergei Krikalev, head of Roscosmos’s human spaceflight program, and NASA ISS Program Manager Joel Montalbano, said the meteor shower had been ruled out as the culprit because it was in the wrong direction.

In the statement on Telegram today (as translated by Google Translate) and reports in TASS, Roscosmos seems also to have ruled out an engineering failure, saying the working groups determined the leak was due to “external mechanical damage.”

Today, a meeting was held at TsNIIMash to discuss the situation with the Soyuz MS-22 manned spacecraft on the ISS.

The conclusions of two working groups formed to clarify the causes of the emergency situation, analyze the technical condition of the ship and develop recommendations for further actions were heard.

It was established that the breakdown of the ship’s thermal control system radiator occurred due to external mechanical damage.

In January 2023, based on the conclusions of the working groups, the commission will make organizational decisions on the further actions of ground specialists and the crew of the ISS Russian Segment, as well as on a possible change in the station flight program.

The date for deciding what to do was pushed into next month, with no date certain.

The big question is whether Soyuz MS-22 can maintain appropriate thermal conditions to ensure the safety of the three ISS crew members it is supposed to bring back to Earth. Cosmonauts Sergei Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin — the pair who were about to make that spacewalk — and NASA astronaut Frank Rubio arrived on Soyuz MS-22 in September and are to ride it home in March.

Soyuz MS-22 crew, L-R: Frank Rubio (NASA), Sergey Prokopyev (Roscosmos), Dmitri Petelin (Roscosmos).

If Soyuz MS-22 is deemed unfit, Roscosmos said it can launch an empty replacement. The next one, Soyuz MS-23, is already built and in testing at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan getting ready to bring the next set of crew members up in mid-March.

The U.S.-Russian-Japanese-European-Canadian International Space Station has been permanently occupied for more than 22 years by crews rotating on 4-6 month schedules.

The International Space Station. This mosaic of images was taken by Crew-2 on November 8, 2021 as they departed.

Krikalev and Montalbano said Roscosmos can move the Soyuz MS-23 launch forward two or three weeks if necessary and send it up to ISS with no one aboard. Soyuz can dock with ISS autonomously. Soyuz MS-22 would undock and return to Earth empty so engineers can gather any relevant data, although the leak is in a section of the spacecraft that separates during reentry and burns up in the atmosphere.

Roscosmos and NASA continually stress that the seven people on ISS are fine and there is no rush to do anything. Prokopyev, Petelin and Rubio are aboard with four others who arrived on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, “Crew 5”:  NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada, JAXA astronaut Koichi Wakata, and Russian cosmonaut Anna Kikina.

Although they may not be in unusual peril from the Soyuz MS-22 leak itself, Soyuz and Crew Dragon are their safe havens or lifeboats in case of an emergency. Any number of situations could arise requiring them to shelter temporarily or quickly undock and return home. Space debris is a persistant hazard, for example. A U.S. spacewalk just had to be postponed for a day because a piece of debris was coming within a quarter of a mile and the space station had to be maneuvered out of the way.  In November 2021, the seven astronauts on ISS at the time had to stay in their lifeboats for a day because of debris from a Russian antisatellite test whizzing by. Although the cause of the Soyuz MS-22 leak is not definitively determined, impact from space debris is a leading contender.

Krikalev said during the media telecon that ISS itself is now the safe haven for the Soyuz MS-22 crew, but that doesn’t answer the question of how they would evacuate in an emergency.

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