Russia plans to launch a cosmonaut rescue mission after its Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft experienced a coolant leak while docked at the International Space Station (ISS). The Soyuz MS-22 transported Russian cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dimitri Petelin, alongside United States NASA astronaut Frank Rubio, who launched on Soyuz as part of a diplomatic barter agreement between Russia’s Roscosmos and NASA. They have been working at the orbiting laboratory since September 2022 and their mission was scheduled to end by March 2023. “On December 14, 2022, ground teams noticed significant leaking of external coolant from the aft portion of the Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft docked to the Rassvet module on the space station,” said NASA. The fluid that was leaked is vital to regulating the Soyuz’s cabin temperature. Officials have said this is an unprecedented scenario.
This week, NASA and Roscosmos provided an update about the ongoing situation at the ISS during a press briefing. “The main problem to land with the current Soyuz would be thermal conditions,” said Sergei Krikalev, a Russian cosmonaut and Roscosmos' executive director for human spaceflight systems. “Because we lost heat rejection capability on Soyuz, in case we have crew inside and we have all equipment switched on, we may have a high-temperature situation on Soyuz in the equipment compartment and crew compartment,” they explained. Soyuz can reach temperatures of over 104 degrees Fahrenheit during its six-hour-long journey back to Earth, it also increases heat as it reenters our planet’s atmosphere at high speeds.
Russia’s mission control engineers and the astronauts in orbit have been investigating the coolant leak issue. “Roscosmos engineers determined the Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft is not viable for a normal crew return, but is available for crew return in an emergency aboard the space station. The Soyuz MS-22 will be replaced by the Soyuz MS-23 spacecraft that will launch to the space station without a crew on Monday, February 20,” the agency announced. The astronauts will return to Earth on the Soyuz MS-23 spacecraft, which was originally manufactured to launch a new crew.
The agency said it maintains discussions with SpaceX for potential backup transport. “NASA also continues its discussions with SpaceX regarding the possibility of using the Crew-5 spacecraft to return additional crew in the event of a station emergency prior to the arrival of Soyuz MS-23,” it stated. SpaceX’s sixth operational Commercial Crew mission, Crew-6, will launch after Soyuz MS-23 launches to the ISS. Then SpaceX’s Crew-5 will return to Earth when Crew-6 arrives.
NASA did not issue a specific date for Soyuz MS-23 to return the trio, representatives stated they are still working to determine the schedule. NASA said that it is working with Roscosmos to adjust the schedule on when to launch a rescue mission to ensure it does not collide with SpaceX’s next crewed flight and also determine how long it would take for Russia to complete manufacturing the next Soyuz MS-24 vehicle that will launch a replacement cosmonaut crew. Krikalev said that the delayed return could add at least several more months to the crew's original six-month mission and they could potentially have to stay another year until Roscosmos sends the next astronaut crew.
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About the Author
Evelyn Janeidy Arevalo
Evelyn J. Arevalo joined Tesmanian in 2019 to cover news as a Space Journalist and SpaceX Starbase Texas Correspondent. Evelyn is specialized in rocketry and space exploration. The main topics she covers are SpaceX and NASA.