Russia on Friday launched a rescue ship for two cosmonauts and a NASA astronaut whose initial return caused a dangerous leak while stationed at the International Space Station.
The new empty Soyuz capsule should arrive at the orbiting laboratory on Sunday.
The capsule’s leak in December was blamed on a micrometeorite that punctured an external radiator, draining it of coolant. The same thing seemed to happen again earlier this month, this time on a dock Russian cargo. Camera views showed a small hole in each spacecraft.
The Russian Space Agency has delayed the launch of the replacement Soyuz, looking for any manufacturing defects. No problems were found, and the agency proceeded with the predawn Friday launch from Kazakhstan of the capsule with supply packages strapped to the three seats.
Given the urgent need for this capsule, two top Nasa officials came from WE to observe the launch in person. To everyone’s relief, the capsule reached orbit safely nine minutes after liftoff – “a perfect ride to orbit,” reported Rob Navias of NASA Mission Control from Houston.
Officials had determined it was too risky to bring NASA’s Frank Rubio and Russians Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin back in their damaged Soyuz next month as originally planned. Without coolant, the cabin temperature would rise during the return trip to Earth, potentially damaging computers and other equipment, and exposing the equipped crew to excessive heat.
While awaiting the arrival of the new Soyuz, contingency plans call for Rubio to switch to a SpaceX crew capsule docked to the space station. Prokopyev and Petelin remain assigned to their damaged Soyuz in unlikely need of a quick getaway. Having one less person on board would keep the temperature hopefully manageable, the Russian engineers concluded.
The damaged Soyuz will return to Earth without anyone on board by the end of March, so engineers can examine it.
The three men embarked on this Soyuz last September for what should have been a six-month mission. They will now stay in space for a full year, until a new capsule is ready for their crew replacements for liftoff in September. It is their Soyuz which has just taken off without anyone on board.
The damaged supply ship was filled with rubbish and broke away over the weekend, burning up in the atmosphere as originally planned.
“The Russians continue to look very closely” at the leaks from the two spacecraft, NASA’s deputy space station program director Dana Weigel told reporters earlier this week. “They’re looking at everything…to try to figure that out.”
NASA has a new crew of four launching atop a SpaceX rocket early Monday morning from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. SpaceX’s William Gerstenmaier said the four astronauts returning to Earth in a few weeks have already inspected the Dragon capsule that will take them home and “everything went well”.