Jan. 11 (UPI) — The Russian Space Agency Roscosmos said Wednesday it will launch an unmanned spacecraft to the International Space Station in February to replace a damaged Soyuz spacecraft docked there.
Roscosmos said in a statement that the Soyuz MS-23 spacecraft will launch without a crew Feb. 20. The damaged Soyuz spacecraft will return to Earth uncrewed. The replacement spacecraft will then carry NASA astronaut Frank Rubio and Roscosmos cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitry Petelin back to Earth.
“We’re not calling this a rescue Soyuz,” NASA ISS Program Manager Joel Montalbano said in a teleconference with reporters. “I’m calling it a replacement Soyuz. This is the next Soyuz that was scheduled to fly in March. It will just fly a little early.”
Roscosmos Executive Director for Human Space Programs Sergei Krikalev said during the update Wednesday that the final decision had been made to replace the Soyuz spacecraft due to a coolant leak discovered in December coming from the aft end of the Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft docked at the ISS.
The current Soyuz crew at the space station will extend their stays for an unspecified time, returning to Earth on the Soyuz MS-23, according to Roscosmos.
Krikalev said that as a result of the leak, temperatures in portions of the spacecraft would “not be healthy for the crew.” He added it would also not be possible to repair the vessel in space.
Montalbano said the damage appears to be from a coolant leak caused by micrometeorite debris, dismissing speculation it was caused by a meteor shower or other space debris.
“We’ve done a lot of imagery assessments of the area of interest and everything does point to micrometeorite debris,” Montalbano said during the live NASA teleconference Wednesday. “We have looked at meteor showers that occurred around the same time frame, but both the team in Houston as well as the team in Moscow have said that the meteor showers were not a contributor.”
Krikalev said Roscosmos could see coolant from the leak going into space and at first looked into whether the leak could have been caused by a technological malfunction. But he said they determined there was no issue with manufacturing or the technology of the spacecraft.
He said Roscosmos was able to see the hole in the radiator and in a pipe caused by micrometeorite debris. Krikalev said the mission will be several months longer as a result of the leaking spacecraft and the replacement being sent to the ISS.
Montalbano said the ISS crew is prepared to stay and keep doing research until the new Soyuz spacecraft can dock at the ISS.
“The awesome thing about our crews is they’re willing to help wherever we ask,” Montalbano said. “They’re prepared to stay until the September launch date if that’s the case. If they go earlier and that launch date moves up earlier, then they’re prepared to come home earlier.”
“I may have to fly some more ice cream to reward them,” he added.