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NASA may tap SpaceX to rescue ISS 'nauts in Soyuz leak

And Elon's still distracted by Twitter, yes? OK, that's probably for the best

NASA is considering using SpaceX to bring three astronauts back to Earth from the International Space Station after the Russian spacecraft due to return the crew suffered a significant coolant leak. 

On December 14, the Russian MS-22 Soyuz capsule, which is right now docked to the ISS, started spraying droplets of coolant into space. That's the coolant that's supposed to control the internal temperature of the podule, and it is reportedly now drained of that vital liquid.

The leak lasted hours, disrupting station operations, and forcing station cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin to abandon a spacewalk planned for that day. Russia's space agency Roscosmos reckoned the leak could have been caused by a tiny micrometeoroid puncturing the capsule.

Officials are still assessing the situation, and will decide whether the Soyuz craft will be able to safely return Prokopyev and Petelin, as well as NASA astronaut Frank Rubio, to Earth in March. With a broken coolant system, the capsule may be unsafe for humans as it reenters our atmosphere. Russia is said to be pulling together plans to get the trio home.

While eggheads tackle that issue, NASA is considering how to rescue the crew if they are indeed stranded on the ISS without a ride home. The station's inhabitants may be able to hop onboard a handy SpaceX Dragon capsule, NASA spokeswoman Sandra Jones suggested.

"We have asked SpaceX a few questions on their capability to return additional crew members on Dragon if necessary," she told Reuters on Wednesday.

It's not clear if a replacement Dragon capsule would fly to the ISS to fetch the three astronauts, or if they can go back on a SpaceX pod that brought NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada, Roscosmos cosmonaut Anna Kikina, and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's astronaut Koichi Wakata, to the orbiting science lab in October.

The Dragon capsule those four boarded, named Endeavor, isn't big enough to carry both teams back to our planet, so multiple trips would be needed anyway to ferry all seven. There's another issue, too: all astronauts traveling in a Dragon spacecraft have to wear tailored SpaceX spacesuits, and the crew that arrived at the space station in the Soyuz don't have that fancy clobber.

NASA and Roscosmos are examining the Soyuz capsule, and tested its thrusters on December 16. The fluid leak was traced to the external cooling loop of the spacecraft.

"The systems that were tested were nominal, and Roscosmos assessments of additional Soyuz systems continue. Temperatures and humidity within the Soyuz spacecraft, which remains docked to the Rassvet module, are within acceptable limits," NASA previously said in a statement. ®

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