Next month, Moscow will launch a rescue ship to the International Space Station to bring home three crew members who are effectively trapped in space after a meteoroid hit their initial capsule.
Last month, the docked Soyuz MS-22 sprung a massive leak, spilling radiator coolant into orbit and causing a pair of cosmonauts to cancel a planned spacewalk.
While Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, stated that the hit posed no immediate threat to the space station’s crew, it raised questions about whether everyone on the orbital outpost could return to Earth in an emergency.
The MS-22 was deemed unsafe due to elevated cabin temperatures caused by the leak, leaving only one functioning “escape pod” docked on the ISS – a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft. The space station has seven astronauts on board, while the SpaceX spacecraft only has four seats.
After much deliberation, Roscosmos has decided to move the Soyuz MS-23 launch from March to February 20 to take Russian cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitry Petelin, as well as US astronaut Francisco Rubio, back to Earth.
If a “particularly critical” situation arose on the ISS in the weeks before that, Roscosmos stated, the prospect of rescuing the crew on the damaged Soyuz MS-22 would be considered.
MS-23 was supposed to carry three crew members but will now run empty as a rescue vessel. Yuri Borisov, the head of Roscosmos, would not disclose when Prokopyev, Petelin, and Rubio will return to Earth aboard the backup Soyuz.
Roscosmos stated that once its replacement arrives, the damaged MS-22 will return without a crew.
Micrometeoroids, naturally occurring rock or metal particles the size of a grain of sand, pose a major threat to human spaceflight.
According to Roscosmos, the diameter of the micrometeoroid that collided with the docked Soyuz was so small that it created a 1mm hole in the capsule. It wreaked havoc, with NASA TV images showing white particles resembling snowflakes streaming out the rear.