Earlier this week, after discovering the second leak on a Russian cargo ship that does not fly people, Russian space agency officials said they were pushing the launch of the replacement craft to March so that to give them additional time to investigate the problem.
But in its statement Wednesday NASA did not put a date on when the replacement ship would be sent to the space station and said that it was working with engineers from Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, “to investigate the cause of coolant loss from both” ships. It added that “the crew is continuing with normal space station operations and scientific research.”
The crew — NASA astronaut Frank Rubio and Russian cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin — launched to the International Space Station in September in what was supposed to be a six-month stay, with a return trip set for March.
Now it’s unclear when the crew will return.
The first setback came in December, when the crew’s Russian-made Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft sprang a leak, spewing coolant used to keep the spacecraft at a comfortable temperature. Last month, Roscosmos said the leak was likely caused by a micrometeoroid strike — not a manufacturing defect, a conclusion that NASA said it supported. Given the damage, Roscosmos decided it would be unsafe for the astronauts to fly home in that ship, as originally planned. Instead, it said it would send up a fresh spacecraft as a replacement.
That launch was supposed to happen Feb. 19. But then on Saturday, Russian engineers at the mission control center outside of Moscow discovered that another spacecraft — this one a cargo ship called Progress 82 — also had a coolant leak.
Now that two spacecraft have had similar problems within months of each other, NASA officials and their Russian counterparts are confronting new questions about what caused the leaks, if they are related and whether the replacement ship might also have a similar problem.
The Progress cargo spacecraft has been attached to the space station since October. Since the leak was discovered, NASA said it “has been assisting Roscosmos in collecting imagery” using the space station’s robotic arm.
Normally, crews rotate out after six-month stays on the space station, and Rubio, Prokopyev and Petelin were to return when a replacement crew flying the next spacecraft, Soyuz MS-23, would relieve them. Since Roscosmos is now sending that spacecraft as a rescue vehicle, the replacement crew won’t fly until September. And so Rubio, Prokopyev and Petelin would be extended until the new crew arrives.
Speaking to reporters last month, Joel Montalbano, NASA’s space station program manager, said that the crew is “prepared to stay until the September launch date, if that’s the case. If that launch day moves up earlier, then they’re prepared to come home earlier.”
Officials have said that the launch of the next crew would be determined once the replacement craft is launched and attached to the station. NASA and Roscosmos are eager to get the replacement ship to the station because it would be used as an evacuation vehicle in the unlikely chance of an emergency aboard the station.