Russian engineers have concluded that a Soyuz space station crew ferry ship damaged by an estimated micrometeoroid impact last month cannot be used as planned to safely return two cosmonauts and a NASA astronaut to Earth in late March, officials said Wednesday.
Instead, the next Soyuz in line, MS-23, will launch on February 20, several weeks ahead of schedule, with no crew on board.
The crew of the damaged Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft – cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev, Dmitri Petelin and NASA’s Frank Rubio – will extend their stay in the laboratory to about a year and return to Earth in late summer or early autumn on the MS-23 ferry. boat.
“We will probably extend the stay of this crew on the station for a few more months,” said Sergei Krikalev, senior cosmonaut and director of manned spaceflight operations at the Russian federal space agency Roskosmos.
“The exact day to send replacements has not yet been decided, but it will be a longer mission of a few months,” he said in English during a teleconference in Moscow.
Originally scheduled to launch on the Soyuz MS-23 spacecraft in March, the backup crew – Oleg Kononenko, Nikolai Chub and NASA astronaut Loral O’Hara – will now await assignment to a sub-flight.
The next NASA-sponsored SpaceX Crew Dragon flight, known as Crew 6, will launch at the end of February, as originally planned. Crew 5 Dragon will set off with a crew of four about a week from now.
When asked how Prokopyev, Petelin, and Rubio were responding to the news that they would be staying in space much longer than planned, Joel Montalbano, space station program manager at Johnson Space Center in Houston, said, “The great thing about our crew is their willingness to help wherever we want. “
“The crew is ready to stay until (September) if that’s the case,” he said from Moscow. “The crew is excited about being in space, doing the research we’re doing in orbit. So whatever decision we make to them they’re ready to go.”
As for the pilotless MS-23 spacecraft, “We don’t call it the rescue Soyuz,” he said. “Right now the crew is safe on the space station. … That’s why I call it the backup Soyuz.”
“This is the next Soyuz, scheduled to fly in March,” he continued. “It will fly a little earlier. The crew doesn’t need to come home right away today, all systems are working.”
Last September, the Soyuz MS-22 ferry carrying Prokopyev, Petelin and Rubio to the station was damaged on 14 December when a micrometeoroid impact ruptured a coolant line. The incident occurred as Prokopyev and Petelin were preparing to glide out of the lab for a pre-scheduled spacewalk.
The spacewalk was canceled as television cameras on the station showed a flood of icy coolers pouring into space over the next few hours. The Russians said temperatures aboard the spacecraft initially remained at “acceptable levels” and all other systems of the ship were operating normally.
But the engineers eventually concluded that during a normal re-entry, with computers and other electronic systems operational to support a full crew of three, temperatures in the crew compartment would rise to 100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.
An engineering analysis shows that the damaged Soyuz could make an automatic uncrewed landing in Kazakhstan despite higher temperatures. But this is not a sure thing.
Krikalev said the current plan is to transfer the custom seat covers and other crew-specific equipment from the damaged MS-22 vehicle to the spare MS-23 and then send the old one back to Earth by mid to late March.
NASA and Russian space station managers are still considering options for what to do if an evacuation-level emergency develops on the space station between today and the arrival of its replacement Soyuz.
“If there was an emergency right now… and you had to evacuate later, which would be a very rare occurrence,” Montalbano said, “with your relevant vehicles (you would go back to Earth).” “But in parallel, we’re talking to SpaceX and looking at an option for what we can do with the SpaceX (Crew 5) vehicle.”
Space station astronauts and cosmonauts rely on vehicles to transport them to the lab, both for normal end-of-mission returns and for lifeboat mission in the event of a catastrophic breakdown, medical emergency, or other problem that may require immediate departure.
The three-seat Soyuz and four-seat Crew Dragon spacecraft require specially fitted crew pressure suits, seats, and other equipment for crew members launched on each vehicle.
The Soyuz cannot physically accommodate an additional crew member, but the Dragon, in theory, can bring home one or more additional astronauts in an emergency, even though it only has four seats and cannot accommodate a Russian pressure suit.
But bringing a Soyuz crew member home aboard the Dragon, even while wearing a shirt, reduces the MS-22 spacecraft’s cooling requirements, which can then attempt to return with a reduced crew.
“We decided that the Soyuz is nominally not good for reentry,” Krikalev said. “In an emergency, however, we will use the Soyuz with the extra risk, but together with our colleagues at NASA we are looking at various options to minimize that risk. Maybe we can move crew members, at least one crew member, to Dragon.”
However, this is strictly a last resort option, and neither NASA nor Roscosmos expects such a scenario to actually materialize.
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