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Russia launching empty Soyuz to replace damaged crew capsule at space station

Soyuz MS-22
The Soyuz MS-22 crew ship is pictured on Oct. 8, 2022, in the foreground docked to the Rassvet module as the International Space Station orbited 264 miles above Europe.

The Russian space agency will launch a backup capsule to the International Space Station next month to return two Cosmonauts and a U.S. astronaut.

Russian cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Peteli along with U.S. NASA astronaut Frank Rubio launched to the station in September. During a spacewalk last month, teams noticed that their docked spacecraft was leaking coolant.

Roscomos and NASA conducted an investigation and concluded the damage was caused by a micrometeorite strike. While they said the crew wasn’t in any immediate danger from the leak, the Soyuz crew will need a new spacecraft to return home.

The Russian space agency plans to launch an empty capsule February 20 to serve as the crew’s return capsule. Their return to Earth was initially planned for March, but Roscosmos's Sergei Krikalev said the mission will likely extend by several months.

"The crews are prepared" for that extended stay, said NASA's Joel Monteblano. A return could come at the next crew handover, sometime in September or possibly earlier.

"I may have to fly some more ice cream to reward them," he added.

The damaged spacecraft will return to Earth without a crew sometime in March. Russian engineers expect the damaged capsule will experience some extra heating of hardware on board. While they think the empty capsule will survive re-entry, temperatures within the capsule wouldn't be suitable for crew.

There are currently two capsules docked to the station: the damaged Russian Soyuz and SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule. Not only are the spacecraft used to transport astronauts to and from the station, they also serve as lifeboats should there be an emergency at the station.

While the Soyuz can't get astronauts off the station should something like a fire or leak occur on board the ISS, Krikalev said the capsule can still be used to protect the crew.

"Soyuz is not good for nominal re-rentry," he said. "But in case of emergency, with extra risk, we are going to use the Soyuz at this point."

Before announcing the replacement Soyuz launch, NASA reached out to private company SpaceX to possibly return the three in its Crew Dragon capsule, which is also used to ferry astronauts to and from the station.

Updated: January 11, 2023 at 10:55 AM EST
This story was updated after a joint news conference with NASA and Roscosmos.
Brendan covers space news for WMFE, everything from rocket launches to the latest scientific discoveries in our universe. He hosts WMFE's weekly radio show and podcast "Are We There Yet?" which explores human space exploration. Brendan is a native Floridian, born and raised in Broward County. He moved to Central Florida in 2005 to attend the University of Central Florida. He began working at WMFE as a college intern where he discovered his love for public radio.
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