On December 15, there was coolant leak outside the ship Soyuz which is currently moored at the International Space Station (ISS). Since then, the Russian space agency Roscosmos studies the details of the incident, especially the state of the ship which still has to bring astronauts back to Earth. On this last point, we know that the Russian officials will make a ‘final decision’ in January regarding the vessel’s ability to carry passengers.
According to Roscosmos, they are currently awaiting the results provided by an investigation group responsible for studying the leak. During the month of January, the Russian space agency will publish “possible changes in the space station flight program based on the conclusions of the investigation group”.
After the leak was detected, checks were carried out on the Soyuz and a hole was discovered. With this discovery, it is uncertain whether the spacecraft can bring the two cosmonauts and the NASA astronaut back to Earth.
The likely cause of the leak
According to the state media provider CASS and Roscosmosthe most likely cause of the leak and the appearance of the hole would be a micrometeoroid or space debris. The hole that was detected on the craft has a diameter of 0.8 mm, and according to NASA and other space agencies, the object that created a hole of this size could not be tracked by current technology.
Lately, the ISS has faced several space debris approach alerts. For example, there was a Russian rocket stage Fregat which passed less than 0.4 km from the station on December 21. This forced the ISS to perform an evasive maneuver and NASA had to postpone a spacewalk.
Currently, even if the leak detected on the Soyuz spacecraft does not represent an immediate danger for the crew of the ISSthe capsule also plays the role of rescue vessel in case of emergency. According to the information, Russia will not be able to send another ship before February if necessary. Thus, until then, the crew members of the ISS will therefore not have a “lifeboat”.
One could consider the use of a capsule SpaceX’s Crew Dragon to bring back affected astronauts, but that would require a separate launch and other flight combinations. These are usually custom made before each launch.