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Truce in orbit: The U.S. and Russia are strange bedfellows as they work to rescue stranded astronauts

A leaky Soyuz capsule on the International Space Station leaves occupants with no immediate way home.

The Soyuz MS-22 crew ship is pictured in the foreground docked to the Rassvet module as the International Space Station orbits 264 miles above Europe on Oct. 8, 2022.

As the U.S. and Russia are facing off over the invasion of Ukraine, the two adversary nations are quietly cooperating on another life-or-death matter: making sure astronauts are not stranded in space.

The situation — one of the more dangerous the ISS has faced in years — comes decades into the two nations’ long partnership running the station, which costs the U.S. $1.3 billion a year to operate. Yet despite the war in Ukraine dividing the two nations, the U.S. and Russia are working on solving the problem together, with a decision expected this month — reflecting three decades of interdependence at the ISS. Born of the end of the Cold War, the space station’s role as a geopolitical symbol of cooperation between the world’s most formidable nuclear powers has long outweighed its scientific achievements.

“So there has been an explicit, but unstated and understood, policy that as long as Russia keeps up its part of the bargain in the partnership that we would not do anything influenced by external factors like Crimea or Ukraine.”

The busted Soyuz and potentially stranded spacefarers are just the latest episode in this long-running marriage of necessity.

“If we have some technical discussion among us or inside on the Russian side, then we share results of the discussion with our partners,” added Roscosmos’ Sergey Krikalev at the same briefing.

“In space, you cooperate and come to each other’s aid, just like Antarctica or Mount Everest, even if on the ground you are practically at war,” said space journalist Keith Cowing of NASA Watch. “This is like a rescue at sea.”

Just like a car with a busted radiator, the Soyuz capsule will overheat with a radiator emptied of cooling fluid. The capsule now relies on air from the station for cooling, but closing its hatch saw temperatures inside rise to 104 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s even before sending it home to Earth on a reentry burn through the atmosphere, when temperatures inside would normally rise even with a functioning cooling system.

Most likely, the Russians will conclude they have to send an empty Soyuz capsule ahead of the March return mission to carry Rubio, Petelin and Prokopyev home, said Cowing. “In some ways, the Russians are even more conservative than we are, so that wouldn’t surprise me.” That will require rescheduling launches, experiments, crew rosters, spacewalks, maintenance and a host of other decisions aboard the orbiting lab, doubtless taking up a lot of planning time at the space agencies, he added. “It is a tribute to space cooperation that they can plan this, with everything else going on. Kind of a lesson for us on Earth.”

Orbital debris

A meteor shower passed by the space station on the day of the leak. However, its direction did not match the orientation of the hole in the Soyuz, said Krikalev, making it still a bit uncertain whether the leak’s cause was a space impact or a mechanical problem. Later camera work showed an exterior hole in the Soyuz about 4 millimeters across above the smaller hole in the radiator line. A micrometeorite that made such a hole would be too small to track and offer station managers warning it was coming, he added.

“Here’s the thing: The amount of stuff we launch is greater than the stuff that is reentering and burning up. So that means the amount of space traffic and space debris is increasing,” said astrodynamicist Moriba Jah of the University of Texas at Austin. “I’m amazed how infrequently we see these sort of things happening. I’d expect to see them.” Given increases in space debris in recent years, an impact from a tiny piece of space junk, (“something half the size of a bullet going 15 times faster than a bullet,” said Jah) wouldn’t be a surprising explanation for the Soyuz leak.

“We have to look at how well that system was shielded and how it was mitigated,” said Jah. “Humans just can’t think of everything that goes into one of these ‘random’ events ahead of time.”

Although the spew of fluid into space was impressive, Montalbano doubted whether the drops would cause problems for the structure of the space station. “It boils off very quickly. And so, we’re not concerned with any contaminants left on board,” he said.

Most likely, the liquid will evaporate in orbit, said Schonberg, but without somehow running an experimental recreation of the event, “it’s going to be difficult to say whether or not any, some or most of the leaking coolant will remain in orbit and negatively affect those who encounter it next.”

Marriage of necessity

“If the coolant leak turns out to have come from the debris created by that Russian antisatellite test, it wouldn’t surprise me,” said Jah. “Mother Nature is going to show us the unintended consequences of our actions. That could be the real point of this event.”

“It was back in the 1990s, a marriage of necessity,” said Logsdon. Russia needed the space station partnership to sustain its human space program at the end of the Cold War. NASA meanwhile needed the Russian buy-in to make geopolitics a selling point for the orbiting lab. “But it was a multi-decade undertaking, so you have to live with the consequences of past decisions,” said Logsdon. “I don’t think there is a chance of a follow-on intimate partnership along these lines now.”

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