NASA is exploring whether SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft could potentially provide an alternative ride for some International Space Station crew members after the Russian capsule leaked coolant while entering the orbital laboratory.
NASA and Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, are investigating the cause of a punctured coolant line in the outer radiator of Russia’s Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft, which is expected to return a crew of two cosmonauts and one US astronaut to Earth early next year.
But the Dec. 14 leak, which emptied the Soyuz of a vital fluid used to regulate the temperature of the crew’s cabin, has disrupted routine Russian space station operations, with engineers in Moscow considering whether to launch another Soyuz to take the three-person team flying to the ISS. aboard the crippled MS-22.
If Russia is unable to launch another Soyuz spacecraft, or decides that doing so would be too dangerous, NASA is considering other options.
“We have asked SpaceX some questions about the ability to produce additional crew members on Dragon, if necessary, but that is not our primary focus at this time,” NASA spokeswoman Sandra Jones said in a statement to Reuters.
SpaceX did not respond to Reuters’ request for comment.
It’s unclear what specific questions NASA is asking about SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capabilities, such as whether the company can find ways to increase the capacity of the Dragon crew currently aboard the station, or launch an empty capsule to rescue the crew.
But the company’s potential involvement in the Russian-led mission underscores the level of precaution NASA is taking to ensure astronauts can safely return to Earth, should one of the other contingency plans orchestrated by Russia fail.
The leaky Soyuz capsule carried US astronaut Frank Rubio and cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin to the space station in September for a six-month mission. He is scheduled to return in March 2023.
Four more station crews — two more from NASA, a third Russian cosmonaut and a Japanese astronaut — arrived in October via NASA-contracted SpaceX Crew Dragon capsules, which also remain parked at the ISS.
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, a bubblegum-shaped pod with four astronaut seats, has been central to NASA’s human spaceflight efforts in Earth orbit. Besides Russia’s Soyuz program, it is the only entity capable of transporting humans to the space station and back.
3 possible causes
Figuring out what’s causing the leak can be a decision on how best to get back to the crew. A puncture caused by a meteoroid, a strike from a piece of space or a hardware failure in the Soyuz capsule itself are the three causes of the leak that NASA and Roscosmos are investigating.
The hardware failure could raise additional questions for Roscosmos about the integrity of other Soyuz vehicles, such as those that could be sent to rescue the crew, said Mike Suffredini, who led NASA’s ISS program for a decade until 2015.
“I can assure you that something is being looked at, to see what is behind it and whether there are any concerns,” he said. “The Russian thing is really good at not talking about what they do, but they are very thorough.”
Roscosmos chief Yuri Borisov had previously said that engineers would decide on Tuesday how to return the crew to Earth, but the agency said that day it would make a decision in January.
NASA has previously said the capsule’s temperature remains “within acceptable limits,” with the crew compartment now vented by the airflow allowed through the open hatch to the ISS.
Sergei Krikalev, the head of Russia’s space program, told reporters last week that temperatures would rise rapidly if the station’s doors were closed.
NASA and Roscosmos are primarily focused on determining the cause of the leak, Jones said, as well as the health of MS-22, which is also intended to serve as a three-person crew lifeboat in case an emergency on the station requires evacuation.
The recent meteor shower initially looked like a micrometeoroid strike was the cause, but the leak is facing the wrong way, NASA’s ISS program manager Joel Montalbano told reporters last week, despite the space rock. coming from the other direction.
And if a piece of space debris is misplaced, it could raise concerns about an increasingly crowded orbital environment and raise questions about whether critical equipment like the spacecraft’s cooling ducts should be protected by dust shields, like other parts of MS-22. spacecraft is.
“We’re not protected at all on the space station,” Suffredini said. “We can’t protect everything.”