Russia will send a rescue craft to the International Space Station on February 20 to bring back three crew members whose aircraft were damaged by an impact last month. The Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft, currently docked at the ISS, suffered a spectacular coolant leak in mid-December, the images showing a jet of particles escaping into space from the rear of the Russian vehicle.
After examining the state of the device, the Russian space agency Roscosmos announced on Wednesday that it considered it preferable to send another spacecraft, the Soyuz MS-23, to bring back the two Russian cosmonauts Sergei Prokopiev and Dmitry Petelin, as well as the American astronaut Frank Rubio. “It was decided to send the Soyuz MS-23 spacecraft on February 20, 2023 without passengers” but with equipment, Roscosmos said in a statement.
“A replacement Soyuz”
The take-off of this device was initially scheduled for March 16 and it was to carry three other passengers to the ISS. “We don’t call it a backup Soyuz,” said Joel Montalbano, ISS program manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “I call it a replacement Soyuz.” “At present, the crew is safe on board the station,” he continued.
The date of the return of the two Russians and the American, initially scheduled for March 28, has not been announced. But their mission will be extended “for several months”, indicated during a press conference the director of manned flights at Roscosmos, Sergei Krikaliov.
In addition, the damaged ship will return to Earth empty, probably “mid- or end of March”, he said.
Emergency preparations on board
Pending the arrival of the replacement vessel, in the event of an emergency causing the need to evacuate the ISS, the Russian and American space agencies are studying several scenarios. They underlined that this eventuality remained highly unlikely.
The first scenario would be to bring the three crew members aboard the damaged Soyuz despite everything, despite concerns about the temperature that could be reached inside the spacecraft at the time of landing. The second would be to decrease “the thermal load” on board the Soyuz by “reducing the size of the crew”.
One of the three passengers would then be brought back by a SpaceX vessel, also currently docked with the ISS. Indeed, in addition to the three crew members who came aboard the Soyuz, the ISS currently has four other passengers, who arrived aboard this SpaceX Dragon capsule – which must also bring them back.
The idea would therefore be to secure a fifth person on board, “in the area where the cargoes are normally located”, explained Joel Montalbano, head of the ISS program at NASA.
Damage caused by a micrometeorite impact
The leak was detected on December 14 on the Soyuz as the two Russian cosmonauts were about to perform a spacewalk. An initial assessment of the causes of the coolant leak raised the possibility of an impact from naturally occurring micrometeorites, man-made debris in orbit, or hardware failure (read below).
On Wednesday, Roscomos claimed the version of a micrometeorite impact “has been experimentally proven”. According to the Russian agency, it opened a hole “less than a millimeter in diameter” in a cooling pipe. Given the speed at which experts believe the object hit the ISS, it can only be a “meteorite that came from a random direction”, and not a piece of debris that would “not have been able to stay in this orbit” at this speed, explained Sergei Krikaliov. The Russian agency ruled out any mechanical failure.
Space, the last place of Russian-American cooperation
For Vitali Egorov, Russian specialist in space issues, the decisions announced Wednesday by Roscosmos are “optimal to ensure the safety of (the crew) and minimize the damage inflicted on the space program”. The ISS has been one of the few remaining fields of cooperation between Moscow and Washington since the start of the Russian offensive in Ukraine, launched on February 24, and the Western sanctions that followed.
The head of Roscosmos, Yuri Borissov, had paid tribute last month to the solidarity of the Americans on board the ISS, who “reached out their hands to help us”, at a time when relations between the Kremlin and the House- Blanche are at their lowest.
The International Space Station was launched in 1998 at a time of US-Russian cooperation, following the space race the two countries had engaged in during the Cold War. Several technical problems, in addition to corruption scandals, have tarnished the reputation of the Russian space sector in recent years, which rivaled that of the United States at the time of the space race.
The disappointment of the Soyuz MS-22 illustrates the risks that continue to exist, despite technological advances that make it possible to calculate and anticipate the trajectory of cosmic objects, unless they are too small.
Space debris, more dangerous than meteorites
If the threat of a tiny meteorite like the one that forced Russia to dispatch a rescue mission to the ISS cannot be warded off, space debris is the main danger, experts say.
Meteor impacts on the ISS are not that rare, according to Didier Schmitt, head of human and robotic exploration at the European Space Agency (ESA). Micrometeorites can hit it with a speed of 10 to 30 km/s, “much faster than a rifle bullet”. This explains why the glazing of the station’s observation dome is protected “by very, very thick layers of protection” when it is not in use.
These meteorites come from so far in the Universe and at such a speed that it is unrealistic to hope to track them. At a minimum, space agencies monitor meteor showers, like the one expected next August. However, according to NASA, the one that hit the ISS came from a different direction than the Geminid meteor shower that occurred in December.
“The greatest risk of end of mission”
A “growing concern”, according to Didier Schmitt, on the other hand concerns space debris of human origin, the remains of satellites and vessels which constitute a veritable cloud in orbit around the Earth. “Millimeter-sized orbital debris poses the biggest end-of-mission risk for most robotic spacecraft in low Earth orbit,” says Stefania Soldini, a space engineering specialist at the University of Liverpool.
Read again: Artificial intelligence to avoid space debris
There would be in orbit half a million pieces of debris the size of a marble and a hundred million measuring about one millimeter, according to a specialized agency of the UN. Even if we managed to get rid of some of this debris, this would justify the ISS being “the most armored spacecraft”, according to Stefania Soldini.
Especially since space is destined to be increasingly populated: of the 14,000 satellites in orbit, approximately 35% have been launched over the past three years and 100,000 others are expected in the coming decade, again according to the UN. The situation is aggravated by the holding of military anti-satellite tests. NASA has thus criticized Russia for having destroyed one of its own satellites in 2021 in a missile test which created more than 1,500 pieces of debris and forced the crew of the ISS to protect themselves. China had done the same as early as 2007, with more than 3,500 fairly large and traceable pieces of debris, according to NASA.
Accidental collisions are another problem. Like that of an obsolete Russian satellite with that of the American communication company Iridium, in 2009.
The US Department of Defense tracks objects in orbit that are larger than 10 centimeters. If an object larger than this size is heading towards the ISS, the station’s thrusters can allow it to avoid it, as it did in 2021, to avoid debris produced by China’s 2007 anti-satellite test.
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