Here’s what we do and don’t know about the damaged Soyuz spacecraft

The European robotic arm examines Soyuz MS-22 after a leak emerged Wednesday night.
Enlarge / The European robotic arm examines Soyuz MS-22 after a leak emerged Wednesday night.

NASA television

Air traffic controllers at Roscosmos, NASA and other International Space Station partners have been closely examining data from the incident since a Soyuz spacecraft leaked coolant uncontrollably Wednesday night.

Although there is no immediate danger to the seven astronauts aboard the space station, this is one of the most serious incidents in the history of the orbiting laboratory, which has been continuously manned for nearly a quarter century. One of the most pressing questions: Can the Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft fly back to Earth safely? If not, when can a replacement, Soyuz MS-23, be flown up? And if there’s an emergency, what do the three crew members who are scheduled to fly home on MS-22 do in the meantime?

NASA hasn’t held any briefings since the incident and just posted a rather boring update on their blog. But there’s a lot going on behind the scenes, and this story will attempt to summarize what is – and isn’t – known at this point.

what is known

Roscomos was never able to stop the external coolant loop leak, so the leak only stopped when the coolant ran out. Immediately thereafter, Russian air traffic controllers attempted to use the European robotic arm attached to the station’s Russian segment to observe the aft end of the Soyuz where the leak occurred. This 11-meter arm did not provide conclusive data.

As a result, NASA will use the 17.6-metre Canadarm2 — also known as the space station’s remote manipulator system — to take a closer look at the Soyuz spacecraft. It is hoped that this visual inspection, which is expected to take place over the weekend, will provide more specific information on the source of the leak, its cause and whether other elements of the Soyuz spacecraft were damaged. To facilitate this work, NASA will postpone a spacewalk scheduled for Monday by astronauts Frank Rubio and Josh Cassada.

In other diagnostic work, Roscosmos conducted a test of the Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft’s thrusters early Friday morning to determine if there were problems with its propulsion system. This test, according to sources, was nominal.

The biggest concern, however, is overheating of the flight computers onboard the Soyuz spacecraft. They will be used to calculate an accurate entry for the Soyuz to ensure it lands in a specific area of ​​Kazakhstan close to the salvage forces. Without the flight computers, the procedure would have to be performed manually. This is possible, but far from optimal since the area where the Soyuz could land would be huge.

During Monday morning’s thruster test, the flight computer warmed up but did not exceed temperature limits, according to a source. There was a speculative report in the Russian press that the Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft reached an internal temperature of 50 degrees Celsius, but Roscosmos said this was incorrect.

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