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ISS Dodges Space Junk With Damaged ‘Lifeboat’ Parked Outside

ISS Dodges Space Junk With Damaged ‘Lifeboat’ Parked Outside

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The ISS as it appeared in November 2022.

The ISS as it appeared in November 2022. Photo: NASA

A piece of Russian space junk came uncomfortably close to the International Space Station early Wednesday, prompting a debris avoidance maneuver. Routine stuff – apart from the fact that three crew members would have been forced to flee in a potentially damaged Soyuz spacecraft if evacuation from the ISS was necessary.

Another day, another aborted spacewalk. This time, the spacewalk was canceled not because of a troubling coolant leak on the Soyuz MS-22 docked with the station, but because of the threat of space debris.

Tracking data warned that a remnant of the Russian Fregat-SB upper stage was coming within a quarter mile of the ISS, prompting the debris avoidance maneuver, NASA explained in a blog post. Ground controllers told the crew to halt preparations for the spacewalk and instead prepare for orbital adjustment. The maneuver took place at 8:42 a.m. ET today, during which the thrusters of a docked Progress 81 spacecraft fired for 10 minutes and 21 seconds, throwing the ISS away from the debris’s predicted path, according to a NASA update.

The space agency said the crew is not in immediate danger and a new date for the canceled spacewalk, where astronauts Frank Rubio and Josh Cassada will proceed with their solar panel installation, is imminent. The crew may not have been in “imminent danger,” but the incident was too early.

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Russia’s Roscosmos space agency is in the process of determining whether its Soyuz MS-22 is suitable for flight after a leak in an external cooling circuit on the spacecraft’s service module occurred on December 15. Inspection revealed a hole 0.8 millimeters wide, possibly caused by a micrometeorite or a small piece of space junk. Alternatively, the leak could be the result of a prefabricated radiator vent hole, NASA speculated Monday.

For Rubio and the cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin, this spaceship is their journey home – but also their lifeboat in an emergency. Roscosmos expects to make a decision on the spacecraft’s airworthiness by December 27. Tests conducted over the weekend showed that the Soyuz’s engines are working properly, but some severe temperature swings in the spacecraft’s cabin could be a cause for concern. The MS-22 could be considered operational, but if not, Roscosmos will send an unmanned Soyuz to replace it. The capsule was due to launch in March as part of the MS-23 mission, but Roscosmos says it can accelerate the flight and launch in mid-February.

That’s still not great. Should evacuation of the space station (for whatever reason) be deemed necessary, Rubio, Prokopyev, and Petelin are expected to use the docked Soyuz MS-22 as an escape vehicle. On Dec. 16, Russian ground controllers sent new instructions to the ISS for just that emergency, that is, if “an urgent descent” is required, according to the state news agency TASS. The details of these new instructions are not known, but they likely consist of a revised evacuation checklist and a set of procedures to accommodate the damaged cooling system once the spacecraft is undocked and airborne.

In other words, the trio would have to risk it in what appears to be a damaged spaceship, simply because there’s no other option. Yes, a SpaceX Crew Dragon is also docked at the station, but that’s meant to bring back the remaining crew, namely NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA) Koichi Wakata, and Roscosmos’ Anna Kikina. The Progress 81 parked outside is an expendable cargo vehicle that burns to a crisp on re-entry, so obviously it’s not an option.

A complete evacuation of the ISS has never taken place and will probably not take place in the foreseeable future. But these two coincident incidents – the leaking spacecraft and the ominous space junk – are a reminder that space can be a very dangerous place to work and the astronauts up there are always vulnerable.

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