Earlier this week, following the discovery of the second leak on a Russian freighter that does not allow people to fly, officials at the Russian space agency said they were delaying the launch of the replacement craft until March to give them additional time to investigate the problem.
But in its Wednesday statement, NASA did not specify a date when the replacement ship would be sent to the space station, saying it was working with engineers from Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, “to investigate the cause of coolant loss from both.” It added that “the crew will continue 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 for what should have been a six-month stay, with a return trip scheduled for March.
Now it is unclear when the crew will return.
The first setback came in December, when the crew’s Russian-made Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft leaked and spewed 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 NASA said it supports. 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 a new spacecraft as a replacement.
That launch was supposed to take place on February 19. But on Saturday, Russian engineers at the mission control center outside Moscow discovered that another spacecraft – this one a freighter 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 face new questions about what caused the leaks, whether 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 “helped Roscosmos collect images” using the space station’s robotic arm.
Typically, crews rotate after a six-month stay on the space station, and Rubio, Prokopyev, and Petelin would return when a replacement crew flying the next spacecraft, Soyuz MS-23, relieved them. Since Roscosmos is now sending that spacecraft as a rescue vehicle, the replacement crew will not fly until September. And so Rubio, Prokopyev and Petelin would be extended until the new crew arrives.
Speaking to reporters last month, Joel Montalbano, the NASA space station’s program manager, said the crew is “willing to stay until the September launch date, if that’s the case. If that launch day shifts earlier, then they’re willing come home earlier.”
Officials have said the launch of the next crew will be determined once the replacement craft has been launched and attached to the station. NASA and Roscosmos are eager to get the replacement ship to the station, as it would be used as an evacuation vehicle in the unlikely event of an emergency aboard the station.