Officials said on Thursday that Russia is examining the flightworthiness of the Soyuz crew capsule docked with the ISS. The capsule sprung a leak last week and it may need to send up a rescue vessel for stranded crew.
On December 14, the MS-22 vehicle began spraying coolant into space. A dramatic NASA TV image showed white particles resembling snowflakes streaming out of the back.
Sergei Krikalev, head of human spaceflight programmes at Russia’s Roscosmos, told reporters at a press conference organised by the US space agency that the damage was being assessed.
A thermal analysis concluded that MS-22 is unfit for crewed flight. Roscosmos scheduled launch of another Soyuz capsule from Baikonur Cosmodrome in mid-March. This capsule would launch uncrewed.
If this is true, the damaged spaceship will return to Earth without a crew.
MS-22 transported Russian cosmonauts Dmitry Petelin and Sergey Prokopyev to the International Space Station in September. They also sent NASA astronaut Frank Rubio to ISS at the same time.
The ISS currently has seven people aboard. But if MS-22 is deemed unfit, the ISS will only have one “lifeboat” capable of carrying four people in case it needs to be evacuated.
In October, Americans Josh Cassada, Nicole Mann, Japanese Koichi Wakata and Russian Anna Kikina boarded a SpaceX Crew Dragon.
According to Montalbano, the cause of the damage is still unknown. But it does not appear that the annual Geminid meteor shower was to blame, as the hull was penetrated from a different direction.
He added that more research is needed to determine whether it was caused by naturally occurring micrometeoroids, man-made debris in orbit or a hardware failure.
A spacewalk to upgrade the station’s solar arrays that was scheduled for Wednesday was completed on Thursday.
Since the start of Russia’s offensive in Ukraine and the subsequent Western sanctions on Russia, space has remained a rare venue for cooperation between Moscow and Washington.
The ISS was launched in 1998, at a time of increased US-Russia cooperation following their Cold War Space Race competition.