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Officials at NASA and Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, are working to decide how to bring home several people at the International Space Station after a Russian Soyuz spacecraft sprang a leak last week.
None of the seven people currently on board the ISS — including three Roscosmos cosmonauts, three NASA astronauts and one astronaut with Japan’s space agency — were ever in any danger as a result of the leak, officials have noted. But it’s not yet clear whether the spacecraft will be able to make a trip back home with its crew on board.
The Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft ferried NASA’s Frank Rubio and two Russian cosmonauts, Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitry Petelin, to the space station on September 21. It was scheduled to bring them back to Earth in March. But Roscosmos is now evaluating whether to fly its next Soyuz mission to the ISS empty and move the launch up two to three weeks so that the spacecraft can serve as a rescue vehicle for Rubio, Prokopyev, and Petelin if Soyuz MS-22 is deemed not safe enough for the crew. If Roscosmos goes with that plan, the next Soyuz mission could lift off in February, according to Montalbano.
The leak on the Soyuz MS-22, which is currently attached to the ISS at one of the orbiting laboratory’s eight docking ports, was identified on December 14. It forced the delay of a planned spacewalk by two cosmonauts last week, and live images during a NASA broadcast showed liquid spewing out from the spacecraft.
Roscosmos determined that the leak occurred on an external cooling loop of the Soyuz. The leak is not expected to cause any external corrosion or damage to the exterior of the ISS, Montalbano noted, saying the leaked coolant “boils up very quickly” as it’s exposed.
It’s not yet clear was caused the leak, which has been traced to a small hole that could have been caused by a collision with a piece of space debris, a mechanical problem or some other issue, according to Montalbano.
Space debris was, however, the certain cause of a one-day delay for a spacewalk planned by the United States. Two astronauts were slated to venture out on Wednesday to install a new solar array to the space station’s exterior, but the ISS had to maneuver out of the way of a piece of spaceborne garbage. The debris was determined to be a piece of an old Russian rocket.
The ISS was able to maneuver successfully, and the US spacewalk kicked off Thursday morning without issue.