Russia plans to send a new capsule next month to bring back three space station crew members whose original flight was damaged, officials said.
Russian and NASA space officials told reporters that the Russian and American will stay several additional months on the International Space Station as a result of the capsule switch, which could push their mission up to nearly a year.
Cosmonauts Sergei Prokopyev and Dmitry Petlin and cosmonaut Frank Rubio were supposed to return in March in the same Soyuz capsule that took them in last September. But that capsule was hit by a small meteor on December 14th, which tore a small hole in the outer coolant and sent the coolant into space.
Barring an emergency at the space station, it would be too dangerous for the crew to use that capsule to return to Earth, said Sergey Krikalev, the head of human spaceflight for the Russian Space Agency.
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Although Russian engineers believe the capsule can survive return and landing safely, the cabin temperature can reach over 100 degrees Fahrenheit with high humidity because it can’t get rid of the heat generated by the computer and other electronics, he noted. Krikalev, former cosmonaut.
The new Soyuz capsule will be launched from Kazakhstan on February 20, a month earlier than planned. No one will be on board. The head of the Russian Space Agency, Yuri Borisov, said that the capsule will fly in automatic mode. The original plan was to launch a new Soyuz in March with two Russians and an American, replacing the three already there. This new crew will now have to wait until late summer or fall to fly when another capsule is ready for them.
Russia would eventually return the damaged capsule with only scientific samples on board.
NASA participated in all discussions and approved the plan.
“At the moment, the crew is safely aboard the space station,” said Joel Montalbano, NASA’s Space Station Program Manager. “There is no immediate need for the crew to go home today.”
Backup plans are underway, according to Montalbano and Krikalev, in case an emergency forces the space station’s seven residents to flee before a new Soyuz launch — such as a fire or decompression. NASA is looking into the possibility of adding an additional crew to the SpaceX capsule currently docked at the station.
Neither Krikalev nor Montalbano could recall a similar case in which a replacement spacecraft needed to be launched quickly.
Borisov said the analysis confirmed that the leak was caused by a micrometeor and not a piece of spacecraft debris or a manufacturing defect. The resulting hole was less than a tenth of an inch in size.
Montalbano said the three crew members took the news very seriously.
“I may have to find more ice cream to reward them” for future freight shipments, he told reporters.
Along with Prokopyev, Petlin, and Rubio, the space station is home to NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada. Russian Anna Kikina and Japanese Koichi Wakata. The four rode aboard a SpaceX capsule last October.
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