The Russian Soyuz spacecraft responsible for last week’s leak aboard the International Space Station (ISS) may have received its wounds here on Earth, on the grounds of its manufacturer, according to a new report from Russian news agency TASS.
The International Space Station (ISS) experienced a slight loss in cabin pressure. Astronauts living on the station searched for the source, finding a small, 2-millimeter puncture in one of the Russian Soyuz capsules docked to the orbiting laboratory. A micrometeoroid impact was initially thought to be the cause and the hole, which was successfully plugged.
But Agence France-Presse reports that Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, claimed the hole in the Soyuz capsule may have been drilled by a technician working on the craft.
Last Thursday, Earth-based personnel monitoring the ISS first noticed the drop in cabin pressure. It was not severe enough to threaten the astronauts aboard the station, so the six-member crew of Expedition 56 was not alerted until they awoke the next day.
The astronauts traced the issue to a 2-millimeter (0.8 inches) hole in the upper “orbital module” of the crew-carrying Soyuz, which arrived at the station in June.
Cosmonaut Sergey Prokopyev, the Soyuz commander, soon patched the hole with epoxy, apparently solving the problem. Pressure levels have been steady ever since, NASA officials have said. (The leak never put crewmembers in any serious danger, officials have stressed.)
The cause of the hole remains under investigation, however. Early speculation centered on a possible micrometeoroid strike, but now human error is strongly suspected. Indeed, the hole’s circular shape suggests a drilling mishap, as do nearby marks on the module wall.
The incident may have occurred during the final assembly or testing of the Soyuz, according to the new report, published today (Sept. 6) by the Russian news agency TASS. Both of these activities take place at facilities run by the Soyuz’s builder, Russian aerospace company Energia, in the city of Korolyov, near Moscow.
“One of the possibilities is the spacecraft might have been damaged in the final assembly hangar. Or it could happen at the control and testing station, which carried out the final workmanship tests before the spacecraft was sent to Baikonur,” an unnamed source in the aerospace industry told TASS, which stressed that it has not confirmed such suspicions.
Soyuz spacecraft — which have been astronauts’ only ride to and from the ISS since NASA’s space shuttle program retired in 2011 — launch from Baikonur Cosmodrome, in Kazakhstan.
The last time the Soyuz capsule flew was in June when it ferried NASA astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor, Russian cosmonaut Sergey Prokopyev and European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gers to the ISS. It is scheduled to bring the same astronauts back to Earth in December.
The Soyuz passed pressure-chamber tests before going to Energia’s final-assembly hangar, the source told TASS. And the assembly and testing facilities are tightly controlled spaces, he added. (TASS referred to the source as a “he.”)
“Only those with proper security clearance are allowed to enter,” the source said. “Also, at the entrance to the hangar and the control and measurement station there are security guards checking all those who come and go.”
Energia is conducting an investigation into the Soyuz incident. And Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Russia’s federal space agency, Roscosmos, has vowed to find the person or persons responsible.
The orbital module is a spherical portion of the Soyuz that allows more gear to go up with the spacecraft. Unlike the lower crew capsule, the orbital module does not survive re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.
“We’re all human and anyone might want to go home, but this method is really low,” Surayev, who was on two previous missions to the ISS, told Russian state news agencies, reports The Guardian. “If a cosmonaut pulled this strange stunt – and that can’t be ruled out – it’s really bad. I wish to God that this is a production defect, although that’s very sad too – there’s been nothing like this in the history of Soyuz ships.”
An unnamed source tells the Russian TASS news agency that a production error is a likely culprit since drilling a hole in zero gravity is extremely difficult or impossible. Instead, they suggest the craft was damaged during testing at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan after passing initial safety checks, and someone hastily covered up the mistake. The sealant they used to cover the hole could have then dried up and fallen off after the craft reached the ISS.