Russia launched a rescue ship on Friday for two cosmonauts and a NASA astronaut whose original ride home had a dangerous leak while parked on the International Space Station.
The new, empty Soyuz capsule should arrive at the orbiting laboratory on Sunday.
A micrometer was blamed for a capsule leak that occurred in December, which punctured an external radiator, allowing coolant to escape. The same thing happened again earlier this month, this time on a docked Russian cargo ship. Camera views showed a small hole in each spacecraft.
The Russian space agency delayed the launch of the replacement Soyuz in search of any manufacturing defects. No problems were found, and the agency went ahead with a pre-dawn launch of the capsule from Kazakhstan on Friday with bundles of supplies strapped into three seats.
Seeing the urgent need for this capsule, two top NASA officials traveled from the US to personally observe the launch. To everyone’s relief, the capsule safely reached orbit nine minutes after liftoff — “a perfect ride to orbit,” Rob Navias of NASA Mission Control reported from Houston.
Officials had determined that it was too risky to bring NASA’s Frank Rubio and Russia’s Sergei Prokopyev and Dmitry Petelin back in their damaged Soyuz next month as originally planned. Without coolant, the cabin temperature would rise during the journey back to Earth, potentially damaging computers and other equipment, and exposing the unsuited crew to extreme heat.
Until the new Soyuz is ready, the emergency plan calls for Rubio to switch to the SpaceX crew capsule that is docked at the space station. Prokopyev and Patelin are assigned to their damaged Soyuz, as they do not need to escape fast enough. Russian engineers concluded that having one less person on board would keep the temperature down to a manageable level.
The damaged Soyuz will return to Earth without aboard by the end of March so engineers can examine it.
Three people in this Soyuz launched on a six-month mission last September. They will now be in space for a full year, until a new capsule to replace their crew is ready for liftoff in September. It was their Soyuz that had just launched and had no one aboard.
The damaged supply ship was filled with trash and set loose over the weekend, burning in the atmosphere as originally planned.
“The Russians continue to look really closely” at both of the spacecraft’s leaks, NASA deputy space station program manager Dana Weigel told reporters earlier this week. “They’re looking at everything … to try to understand it.”
NASA has a new crew of four launching aboard a SpaceX rocket 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 “it all went well.”