The Soyuz MS-09 crew spacecraft docked to the ISS.
Image: ESA/A. Gerst

Russian cosmonauts are preparing to inspect a mysterious hole on the exterior of a damaged Soyuz capsule, a complex spacewalk that could take upwards of six hours to complete. The mission is scheduled to start at 11:00 am ET, and you can watch it live right here.

As TASS reports, Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kononenko and Sergei Prokopyev will be taking a close-up look at the exterior of the Russian-built Soyuz MS-09, which is currently docked to the International Space Station. Back on August 29, a minor air pressure leak was detected inside the ISS, the result of a 2 millimeter “microcrack” on the hull of the Soyuz spacecraft. The incident posed no risk to the astronauts, and the hole was quickly patched. The cause of the hole, however, is still unknown—and the incident has sparked considerable controversy.

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The spacewalk is scheduled to begin at 11:00 am ET (8:00 am PT), with NASA coverage already in progress. The spacewalk will be shown in its entirety on NASA public television.

Initially, the hole was thought to have been caused by a micrometeorite, but on closer inspection, it appeared that the hole was caused by “a faltering hand,” said Roscosmos CEO Dmitry Rogozin several days after the incident, adding that it “was done by a human hand—there are traces of a drill sliding along the surface.” The Roscosmos chief said the defect may have occurred on Earth during the manufacturing process, but he didn’t rule out other possibilities, such as an ISS astronaut causing “deliberate spoilage.” Soon after these comments, Russian media began to float the theory that NASA deliberately sabotaged the ISS, as Ars Technica reported.

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The hole in the Soyuz MS-09 crew vehicle prior to patching with an epoxy-based sealant. Scratches and several false starts at drilling suggest a “faltering hand,” in the words of Roscosmos CEO Dmitry Rogozin
Image: NASA

For today’s spacewalk, Kononenko and Prokopyev will be inspecting the external surface of the capsule in the area around the hole. The mission will be “unprecedented by its complexity,” said Rogozin earlier today in a tweet. To inspect the area, the cosmonauts will have to temporarily detach some thermal insulation and the meteorite shield protecting the capsule. The plan to “open up the spacecraft’s meteorite shield will be carried out in outer space for the first time in the history of cosmonautics,” reports TASS.

Once the area is exposed, the cosmonauts will make a visual inspection of the area and take photographs. They’ll also collect some surface samples around the hole and bring them back to the ISS for analysis. The Soyuz capsule itself is scheduled for re-entry back to Earth on December 20.

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Fingers are crossed that all goes well during today’s spacewalk, and that Roscosmos and NASA will finally be able to put an end to this unfortunate episode.

[New York Times, TASS]