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ISS Dodges Space Junk With Damaged ‘Life Boat’ Parked Outside

The maneuver came at an inopportune time, with a Soyuz escape vehicle in potentially bad shape after a coolant leak.

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

A chunk of Russian space junk came uncomfortably close to the International Space Station early Wednesday, resulting in a debris avoidance maneuver. Routine stuff—except for the fact that three crew members would’ve been forced to escape inside a potentially damaged Soyuz spacecraft had an evacuation of the ISS been necessary.

Another day, another canceled spacewalk. This time, instead of the spacewalk being axed due to an unsettling coolant leak on the Soyuz MS-22 docked to the station, it was canceled on account of threatening space junk.

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

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The space agency said the crew was not in any immediate danger and that a new date for the canceled spacewalk, in which astronauts Frank Rubio and Josh Cassada will continue with their solar panel installations, is forthcoming. The crew may not have been in “any immediate danger,” but the incident was untimely.

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Russian space agency Roscosmos is in the midst of determining whether its Soyuz MS-22 is suitable for flight following the December 15 leak of an external cooling loop on the craft’s service module. Inspections revealed a 0.8-millimeter-wide hole that may have been caused by a micrometeorite or a small piece of space junk. Alternatively, the leak may be the result of a pre-manufactured radiator vent hole, as NASA speculated on Monday.

For Rubio and cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin, this spaceship is their ride home—but it’s also their life boat in the event of a serious emergency. Roscosmos expects to make a decision about the craft’s flight worthiness by December 27. Tests done over the weekend indicated that the Soyuz’s thrusters are working properly, but some wild temperature fluctuations inside the spacecraft’s cabin could be cause for concern. The MS-22 could be deemed fit for service, but in the event it’s not, Roscosmos will send an uncrewed Soyuz as a replacement. The capsule was supposed to go up in March as part of the MS-23 mission, but Roscosmos says it could expedite the flight and have it go up in mid-February.

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That’s still not great. Should an evacuation of the space station be deemed necessary (for whatever reason), Rubio, Prokopyev, and Petelin are expected to use the docked Soyuz MS-22 as their escape vehicle. On December 16, Russian ground controllers sent new instructions to the ISS for this very contingency, that is, should “an urgent descent” be required, as state-run TASS news agency explained. 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 aloft.

In other words, the trio would have to risk it inside an apparently damaged spacecraft simply because no other option exists. Yes, a SpaceX Crew Dragon is also docked to the station, but that’s meant to return the remaining crew, namely NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada, Koichi Wakata of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and Anna Kikina of Roscosmos. As for the Progress 81 parked outside, that’s an expendable cargo vehicle that burns to a crisp on reentry, so it’s obviously not an option.

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A full-scale evacuation of the ISS has never happened, nor is it likely to happen any time soon. But these two coinciding incidents—the leaky spacecraft and the threatening space junk—are a reminder that space can be a very dangerous place to work, and the astronauts up there are always vulnerable.

More: SpaceX Pulls off 3 Orbital Launches in 34 Hours, Smashing Its Record