Russia launched a rescue ship on Friday for two cosmonauts and a NASA astronaut whose original trip home developed a dangerous leak while parked at the International Space Station.
The new, empty Soyuz capsule should arrive at the orbiting lab on Sunday.
The capsule leak in December was blamed on a micrometeorite that punctured an external radiator, leaking it with coolant. The same thing appeared to happen again earlier this month, this time on a docked cargo ship in Russia. Camera views show a small hole in each spacecraft.
The Russian Space Agency is delaying the launch of the replacement Soyuz, looking for any manufacturing defects. No issues were found, and the agency proceeded to launch Friday at dawn from Kazakhstan in the capsule with bundles of supplies strapped to three seats.
Because of the urgent need for this capsule, two top NASA officials traveled from the US to personally observe the launch. To everyone’s relief, the capsule safely reached orbit nine minutes after liftoff — “a perfect ride to orbit,” NASA Mission Control’s Rob Navias reported from Houston.
Officials determined it was too risky to return NASA’s Frank Rubio and Russia’s Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin back to their damaged Soyuz next month as originally planned. Without coolant, cabin temperatures would rise during the trip back to Earth, potentially damaging computers and other equipment, and exposing the suited crew to overheating.
Until the new Soyuz stops, emergency plans call for Rubio to transfer to a SpaceX crew capsule docked at the space station. Prokopyev and Petelin remained assigned to their damaged Soyuz in the unlikely event of a rapid escape. Having a small person on board would keep the temperature at an expected manageable level, the Russian engineers concluded.
The damaged Soyuz will return to Earth empty at the end of March, so engineers can inspect it.
The three men were launched in this Soyuz last September on what was supposed to be a six-month mission. They will now remain in space for the rest of the year, until a new capsule for their replacement crew is ready for liftoff in September. This is their Soyuz that was just launched without aboard.
The wrecked supply ship was filled with debris and scrapped over the weekend, burning in the atmosphere as originally planned.
“The Russians continue to look closely” at the two spacecraft leaks, NASA’s deputy space station program manager Dana Weigel told reporters earlier this week. “They look at everything … to try to understand that.”
NASA had a new crew of four launch aboard a SpaceX rocket early Monday morning from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. SpaceX’s William Gerstenmaier said the four astronauts who returned to Earth in a few weeks have already checked out the Dragon capsule that will take them home and “it’s all good.”
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