Russia’s state-owned space corporation, Roscosmos, reported Saturday that a Progress supply ship attached to the International Space Station has lost pressure in its external cooling system.
In its statement, Roscosmos said there was no threat to the seven crew members on board the orbiting laboratory. NASA, too, said the hatch between the Progress MS-21 vehicle and the space station was open. Notably, the incident with the supply ship came within hours of the safe docking of another Progress ship, MS-22, which is in good health.
Although the initial Roscosmos statement was vague about the depressurization event, Dmitry Strugovets, a former head of space agency Roscosmos’ press service, later clarified it was a coolant leak. “All of the coolant has leaked out,” he said via Telegram.
This is the second Russian spacecraft to suffer a cooling system leak in less than two months at the space station.
On December 14 2022, as two cosmonauts were preparing to conduct a spacewalk outside the space station, the Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft docked nearby began to leak uncontrollably from its external cooling loop. This system carries heat away from the interior of the spacecraft.
This Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft had been due to bring cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin, as well as NASA’s Frank Rubio, back to Earth in March. Russian engineers eventually declared that a micrometeorite had struck the external cooling loop of the spacecraft, and deemed it unsafe to fly home.
In January, officials from Roscosmos and NASA said a replacement Soyuz spacecraft will launch to and autonomously dock with the station in February. The crew that would have flown in the damaged Soyuz MS-22 vehicle, including Rubio, will instead fly home in this Soyuz MS-23 spacecraft later in 2023. The leaky Soyuz MS-22 vehicle will make an autonomous return to Earth, bereft of crew, likely in March.
It is not clear how directly the leaky Progress and Soyuz spacecraft are related. According to one NASA source, however, there was some preliminary data received from the Progress vehicle that indicated a similar cooling system issue. External cameras showed flakes moving away from the Progress vehicle—frozen coolant—similar to that observed with Soyuz MS-22.
Growing list of failures
Roscosmos said Saturday the Progress incident “will have no impact on the future station program.” This is likely true for Progress MS-21, at least. The spacecraft already has been packed with trash and other material to be removed from the station, and was due to leave next week, burning up in Earth’s atmosphere during reentry.
However, it seems too early to make such a conclusion for future missions. A critical question is what caused the depressurization event observed Saturday. It seems improbable that a second micrometeorite would have struck as second Russian spacecraft in less than two months. This raises doubts about whether the Soyuz MS-22 failure was indeed a micrometeorite issue—Russia has never released images of the impact site—and instead perhaps a manufacturing defect.
A few hours after the Progress depressurization Saturday there are more questions than answers, but none of this will comfort NASA as it partners with Russia to continue operating the space station. This latest Soyuz and Progress failures are just two in a long line of recent issues, including the Nauka module’s misfiring thrusters in 2021, a Soyuz booster failure in 2018 that forced Aleksey Ovchinin and Nick Hague to make an emergency return to Earth, or another leaky Soyuz vehicle.
These are the kinds of problems that one might expect from a space industry in Russia that is reliant on aging infrastructure, aging technology, and quality control issues due to inadequate budgets.