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ISS rescue Soyuz launches this week, won't return crew until September

Leaving another Russian craft in orbit for months ... what could go wrong?

Crew trapped on the ISS due to a leaky Soyuz capsule ought to settle in for a longer than planned stay: Russian space agency Roscosmos announced today that the trio won't be coming home until September.

Cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin, along with NASA 'naut Francisco Rubio, arrived on the ISS last September and had originally planned to return to Earth next month in March. Their homecoming was thrown into limbo in December when their craft, a Russian Soyuz designated MS-22, sprung a coolant leak that made it impossible to return them safely to Earth.

Several plans were floated to bring back the crew, with NASA and Roscosmos ultimately deciding to send the next Soyuz crew capsule – MS-23 – to the ISS unmanned instead of with a new crew. 

When that decision was made in early January, Prokopyev, Petelin and Rubio's return date was still up in the air, but NASA said later in the month that the possibility of an extension until September, as now appears to be the case, was likely.

If the team comes home toward the end of September it would put them at near to 365 days in space – a mission duration few people have achieved.

Several Russian and Soviet cosmonauts exceeded a year in space while on the Mir space station to test long-duration microgravity on the human body: Valeri Polyakov spent a record 437 days in space, Sergei Avdeyev stayed in orbit for 379 days, and two Soviets, Vladimir Titov and Musa Manarov, spent 365 days and a few hours on Mir together between 1987 and 1988. 

NASA's record for its astronauts was set by Mark Vande Hei in early 2022 when he and Russian cosmonaut Pyotr Dubrov returned to Earth after 355 days aloft. 

According to Roscosmos, "The extension itself is positively perceived by the astronauts and does not pose a danger to their health."

A litany of leaky landers

Soyuz MS-23 will launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on February 24, but it'll remain strapped to the ISS for months before returning the MS-22 crew to Earth, and given the recent record that Soyuz spacecraft have had in orbit that might not be the best idea. 

Along with the MS-22 leak in December, the Russian Soyuz Progress 82 supply craft that docked with the station in October also recently sprung a coolant leak of its own. Given the craft is only going to be filled with trash and disposed of over the Pacific Ocean that's not a huge problem, but it does raise questions about the suitability of Soyuz spacecraft - which have been ferrying people and supplies to space since the 1960s - for continued use. 

Russia said it isn't concerned, noting that even in the current situation Soyuz craft "have proven their reliability and survivability." 

"Cases of breakdown by a micrometeoroid of a spacecraft or an orbital station have occurred before, but unlike the Soyuz MS-22, they have never led to such serious consequences," Roscosmos said. 

In its statement on the ISS rescue plan, Roscosmos concluded the leak was indeed caused by a micrometeor, likely one less than a millimeter in size, that "got into the radiator of the ship's instrumentation compartment." No one on Earth, Roscosmos said, even has the capability of detecting micrometeors that tiny.

As to whether intends to modernize Soyuz craft to, for example, add a redundant cooling system, Roscosmos said it's not that easy. 

Such updates would "require large financial resources and time, and will lead to an increase in the mass of the spacecraft," the space agency said, adding "this case will certainly be taken into account when developing a new generation of manned spacecraft."

Russia is currently working on a new manned craft called "Orel," but announced in November that a scheduled 2023 unmanned launch was being delayed until at least 2025. Roscosmos Executive Director for Manned Programs, Sergei Krikalev, said last year that a lack of ground-based testing facilities were limiting the speed of the craft's development – not the ship itself. ®

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