MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia said on Wednesday it would launch another Soyuz rocket on Feb. 20 to bring back two cosmonauts and an American astronaut from the International Space Station after their original capsule leaked coolant last month.
The leak came from a small hole — less than 1 millimeter wide — in the external cooling system of the Soyuz MS-22 capsule, one of two return capsules docked on the International Space Station that can bring crew members home.
Russia says the crew will now return aboard Soyuz MS-23, while the damaged Soyuz MS-22 capsule will be returned to Earth empty.
“After analyzing the condition of the spacecraft, thermal calculations and technical documentation, it was concluded that MS-22 should land without a crew on board,” said Yuri Borisov, head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos.
He added that if there is an emergency situation in the meantime, the agency will consider the possibility of using the spacecraft to rescue the crew.
“The flight of Sergei Prokopyev, Dmitry Petlin and Francisco Rubio to the International Space Station is being extended. They will return to Earth aboard Soyuz MS-23,” Roskosmos said.
The MS-23 launch was previously planned for mid-March, but it will instead launch from the Baikonur cosmodrome as an unmanned rescue mission.
The accident has disrupted Russia’s International Space Station activities, forcing the astronauts to cancel spacewalks while officials focus on the leaky capsule, which serves as a lifeboat for the crew. Russia says the leak may have been caused by a meteorite impact.
Leakage is also a problem for NASA. The US agency said last month that it was exploring whether SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft could offer an alternative flight for some ISS crew members, in the event Russia could not launch another Soyuz.
(Reporting by Mark Trevelyan and Caleb Davis); Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Gareth Jones
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