Soyuz leak cancels spacewalk from space station

WASHINGTON — A coolant leak in a Soyuz spacecraft docked with the International Space Station on Dec. 14 forced flight controllers to cancel a Russian spacewalk and raised questions about the spacecraft’s ability to return. safely on Earth.

Cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitry Petelin were preparing for a spacewalk when station controllers noticed a coolant leak in the service module of the docked Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft around 7:45 p.m. Eastern Time . That spacecraft delivered Prokopyev and Petelin, along with NASA astronaut Frank Rubio, to the station nearly three months ago.

The two cosmonauts continued their spacewalk preparations but remained in the airlock while engineers on the ground assessed the problem. Their seven-hour spacewalk was scheduled to begin around 9:20 p.m. EST, but was delayed and eventually canceled shortly before 10 p.m. EST. The leak, visible as a stream of particles from the Soyuz, was visible more than three hours after it began in NASA television coverage.

“The best course of action tonight was to focus all of our Moscow team’s attention on sorting out exactly what’s going on with the Soyuz spacecraft, and then we’ll regroup tomorrow,” said Emily Nelson, director of Chief NASA flights at Johnson Space Center. comments on NASA TV around midnight Eastern time.

Russia’s Roscosmos space agency, in a brief statement Dec. 15, said there was “damage to the outer skin” of the Soyuz service module, but did not elaborate on the problem. Roscosmos said a third Russian cosmonaut on the station, Anna Kikina, used a robotic arm to perform a photographic inspection of the spacecraft, sending those images back to Earth for analysis.

The cause and severity of the leak are unclear. The leak posed no immediate risk to the station and its crew, but in the worst-case scenario, it would render the Soyuz spacecraft unable to safely return to Earth with its crew.

Roscosmos could launch the next Soyuz to the station without any replacement crew on board, but it’s unclear when the spacecraft, Soyuz MS-23, might be ready for launch, and that would affect future crew rotations. Launch of Soyuz MS-23 to the station is currently scheduled for March 2023 with two cosmonauts from Roscosmos and one astronaut from NASA.

The risk of a problem with Soyuz or American commercial vehicles is a key reason NASA has for years sought to swap seats between these spacecraft under a barter deal. This would mean that there would be at least one NASA astronaut and one Roscosmos cosmonaut on the station at all times if Soyuz or commercial crew vehicles were out of service for an extended period.

After lengthy negotiations, NASA and Roscosmos reached the seat swap deal in July. Rubio flew to the station on Soyuz MS-22 in September and Kikina on the SpaceX Crew-5 Crew Dragon mission in October, becoming the first Russian cosmonaut to fly on a commercial crew vehicle. The current deal includes seat swaps on the Soyuz and Crew Dragon missions scheduled for spring and fall 2023.

The leak marked the second consecutive postponement of a spacewalk by Prokopyev and Petelin, intended to move a radiator from the Rassvet module to the station’s Nauka module. Roscosmos canceled the first spacewalk attempt on November 25 due to a problem with a pump in one of the spacesuits.

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