NASA astronaut Yasmine Moghbeli looked out the large windows of the International Space Station on Monday afternoon and saw snow falling in space.
Well, it doesn’t really snow. But there were flakes flying next to it that looked more like flashes. It emanated from one of the two radiators serving the Nauka scientific module attached to the Russian part of the space station. The chips were frozen with coolant, and as a precaution, she and other crew members in the orbiting laboratory closed the window shutters of the American segment.
Moghbeli and other crew members were never in any real danger from a coolant leak, but the problem raises serious concerns about the viability of the Russian hardware in space. This is because this is the third such leak involving Russian equipment in less than a year.
It’s not clear what all this means, but let’s start with what we know about the three leaks and then discuss what all this might mean for the future of the International Space Station.
The problems with the leaky radiators started about 10 months ago.
On December 14, 2022, as two astronauts prepared for a spacewalk outside the space station, the Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft docked nearby began leaking uncontrollably from its external cooling loop. The Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft was scheduled to bring astronauts Sergei Prokopyev and Dmitry Petlin, as well as NASA’s Frank Rubio, to Earth in March. A replacement vehicle had to be sent to bring them home, and they landed safely last month.
Additionally, on February 11, 2023, the Progress MS-21 supply ship attached to the International Space Station lost pressure in its external cooling system. Once again, all the coolant on board a Russian spacecraft has leaked into space due to a rupture. This vehicle, which has been docked at the International Space Station since October, later separated and reentered Earth’s atmosphere without incident.
After these problems, Russian officials blamed the cooling system leak on an “external influence”, stating that a small meteorite or a small piece of orbital debris was the cause. Although some NASA officials privately wondered whether both of these leaks were actually caused by impacts in space rather than technical defects in the hardware, the US space agency has publicly agreed with the explanation.
But then an accident happened on Monday.
The backup coolant starts to leak
The United States and Russia each maintain their own separate parts of the space station, but they share a common source of power and propulsion. In 2010, Russian cosmonauts installed a radiator on their segment in preparation for a module for scientific experiments. This “Nauka” unit finally arrived in 2021 and, after some initial difficulties, started operating normally.
The Nauka unit has its own radiator. according to Interview conducted in August With a senior Russian space official, Sergei Krikalev, the purpose of this spare coolant was to get rid of excess heat during scientific experiments.
However, in The update was posted on Tuesday The Russian space agency Roscosmos said on the social networking site Telegram that no scientific experiments have been postponed so far due to the coolant leak. Temperatures today remain comfortable, according to the astronauts, and they were able to exercise on a treadmill in the module.
NASA confirmed In a blog post There do not appear to be any major effects on the crew and space station from the recent leak.
Old space station
The effects of the latest infusion will become more apparent over time, but the overall trend is not good. Two coolant leaks attributed to outside influences have already strained naivety — and NASA has observed no such damage to its instruments in recent years. Is Russia claiming that the third leak was also due to an external force?
The coolant that the Russians use is somewhat toxic, so there are also some concerns about contamination as this substance affects different parts of the space station.
Looking at the long term, there are also some issues revealed by the recent leak. One is that quality control of Russian space hardware has declined in recent years, at least in part due to a lack of investment by that country in its space workforce and facilities on Earth. This may have been the reason for one or more of these leaks. The other problem is that the ISS is outdated, with some items now having flown for nearly 25 years in space. NASA hopes to continue flying the space station until 2030, but will it and its partners be able to do so?
We should know more information fairly soon. A long meeting between NASA, Roscosmos and other international partners is scheduled for later today, where the issue will be discussed.