Officials said that this spacecraft may be ready to fly without any people on board sometime in February, a few weeks before the crew returns in March.
The crew that will fly home aboard the rescue vehicle will include NASA astronaut Frank Rubio and a pair of astronauts, Sergey Prokopiev And the Dmitry Petlinwhich arrived at the station in September.
Wayne Hill, the former NASA administrator and space shuttle program manager, said he couldn’t remember any other time when either NASA or Roscosmos had to consider sending another spacecraft as a lifeboat to bring back a crew.
On December 14, as a pair of astronauts were preparing to exit the station for a spacewalk, ground controllers at Roscosmos and NASA detected a leak of coolant flowing in a controlled manner from the Soyuz capsule.
Roscosmos soon canceled the spacewalk. After examining the vehicle with the station’s robotic arm, they determined that the leak was from an external cooling line used to keep the capsule at a comfortable temperature while ferrying its crews through the atmosphere into the vacuum of space.
In a statement last week, NASA said that “none of the crew members aboard the station were in danger, and all conducted their normal operations throughout the day.” She added, “The images and data are being analyzed by Roscosmos. The agency also closely monitors the temperatures of the Soyuz spacecraft, which remain within acceptable limits. NASA and Roscosmos continue to work together on the course of action after ongoing analysis.”
None of the coolant has contaminated the space station, said Joel Montalbano, NASA’s space station manager, and astronauts on the station are still conducting science experiments, including growing tomatoes.
The cause of the leak is not clear. Possible causes being investigated, Montalbano said, are a failure of the rover’s instruments or possible damage from a piece of debris or a small meteorite.
On Wednesday, NASA canceled a spacewalk to install an upgraded solar array because a piece of debris was expected to come within a quarter of a mile of the station. Crews maneuvered on the station to avoid debris, and the spacewalk was rescheduled for Thursday.