NASA considers SpaceX crew backup plan for Russia’s leaky Soyuz ship

NASA considers SpaceX crew backup plan for Russia’s leaky Soyuz ship

NASA considers SpaceX crew backup plan for Russia’s leaky Soyuz ship

A stream of particles, which NASA says appears to be liquid and possibly coolant, is spewing from the Soyuz spacecraft on the International Space Station, delaying a routinely scheduled spacewalk by two Russian cosmonauts for Dec. 14, 2022. video.

NASA TV | through Reuters

NASA is investigating whether SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft could potentially provide an alternate ride home for some International Space Station crew members after a Russian capsule caused a coolant leak while docked at the orbital lab.

NASA and Russia’s Roscosmos space agency are investigating the cause of a leaking coolant line on an external radiator of Russia’s Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft, which should return its crew of two cosmonauts and an American astronaut to Earth early next year.

But the December 14 leak, that emptied the Soyuz of a vital fluid used to control crew cabin temperatures has derailed Russian space station routines, with engineers in Moscow investigating whether another Soyuz should be launched to retrieve the three-man team which flew to ISS aboard the crippled MS-22 craft.

If Russia can’t launch another Soyuz ship, or for some reason decides it would be too risky, NASA is considering another option.

“We’ve asked SpaceX a few questions about their ability to return additional crew members on Dragon if needed, but that’s not our main focus at this point,” NASA spokeswoman Sandra Jones said in a statement to Reuters.

SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment from Reuters.

It was unclear what specifically NASA was asking of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capabilities, such as whether the company can figure out a way to increase the crew capacity of the Dragon currently docked at the station, or launch an empty capsule for the rescue of the crew.

But the company’s possible involvement in a Russian-led mission underscores the level of precaution NASA is taking to ensure its astronauts can safely return to Earth should any of the other contingency plans put in place by Russia fall through. .

NASA considers SpaceX crew backup plan for Russia’s leaky Soyuz ship

The leaking Soyuz capsule carried American astronaut Frank Rubio and cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dimitri Petelin to the space station in September for a six-month mission. They would return to Earth in March 2023.

The station’s four other crew members — two more from NASA, a third Russian cosmonaut and a Japanese astronaut — arrived in October via a NASA-contracted SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, which also remains parked at the ISS.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, a four-seat gumdrop-shaped pod for astronauts, has become the centerpiece of NASA’s human orbit spaceflight efforts. Besides the Russian Soyuz program, it is the only entity that can transport people to the space station and back.

Three possible culprits

Finding the source of the leak can play a role in decisions about the best way to return crew members. A metreoid puncture, a piece of space debris impact, or hardware failure on the Soyuz capsule itself are three possible causes of the leak that NASA and Roscosmos are investigating.

A hardware failure could raise additional questions for Roscosmos about the integrity of other Soyuz vehicles, such as the one it could send for crew rescue, said Mike Suffredini, who led NASA’s ISS program for a decade until 2015.

“I can assure you they’re looking at that, to see what’s behind that and if there’s any reason for it,” he said. “The thing with the Russians is they are very good at not talking about what they are doing, but they are very thorough.”

Roscosmos chief Yuri Borisov had previously said engineers would decide how to return the crew to Earth by Tuesday, but the agency said it would make the decision that January.

NASA has previously said the capsule’s temperature remains “within acceptable limits,” with the crew compartment currently being vented with airflow allowed to the ISS through an open hatch.

Sergei Krikalev, Russia’s head of manned space programs, told reporters last week that temperatures would rise rapidly if the hatch to the space station were closed.

NASA and Roscosmos are primarily focused on determining the cause of the leak, Jones said, as well as the health of MS-22, which is also intended to serve as a lifeboat for the three-man crew in case an emergency at the station requires evacuation .

A recent meteor shower initially seemed to raise the likelihood that a micrometeoroid impact might be the culprit, but the leak was pointed the wrong way for that to be the case, NASA’s ISS program manager Joel Montalbano told reporters last week. come from a different direction.

And if a piece of space debris is to blame, it could fuel concerns about an increasingly cluttered orbital environment and raise questions about whether vital equipment like the spacecraft’s coolant line should have been protected by debris shielding like other parts of the MS-22. . are spacecraft.

“We’re not protected from everything all over the space station,” Suffredini said. “We can’t protect ourselves against everything.”

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