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Bold search for answers in the Soyuz puzzle



If you came to NASA TV on December 11, you would be treated as a view that can best be described as "unprecedented": Russian cosmonauts roughly cut off the thermal insulation of the docked Soyuz probe with a knife and a makeshift pair of scissors. Working in a cloud of material torn during an extremely unusual procedure, astronauts Oleg Kononenko and Sergey Prokopyev successfully excavated their own unique place in the history of the cosmos. Their task was to examine the outside of the suspect hole in the Soyuz MS-09 capsule, which caused a drop in air pressure at the International Space Station earlier this year.

The fact that astronauts usually do not leave the hatch and do not use the knife to hack outside their spacecraft is probably obvious. Such an event has never happened before, and although no one can predict the future, the chances are that it is not something that we will probably see again. It must be remembered that it was not a test capsule or a dilapidated one, but a vehicle designed to return three people to Earth within a few days. Cutting the spacecraft, which will soon be entrusted with human life, is not a risky move and shows how a truly desperate Russian space agency Roscosmos has to know who or what will put a hole in the side of one of its spacecraft.

A thorough inspection of the interior of the spacecraft confirmed that the holes were not hit with a micrometeorite or a small piece of cosmic garbage, as originally assumed. It seems that it was made using a drill, which really only allows two possible scenarios: intentional sabotage or error, and then cover-up. In any case, a really shameful crime has been committed and you have to find the responsible. Fortunately, a slow leak of air pressure was detected early, and the hole was patched before damage, but what would happen if it were not?

Essential equipment

Even if you do not consider yourself armchair astronauts, it is quite clear that the outer insulation and shielding of the spacecraft are not meant to be removed in space, let alone to be hacked by improvised gear by several spacewalking comrades. Essentially, if the designer thinks it's important enough to protect a part of the vehicle with multiple levels of thermal protection and micrometeorite, it's probably not a good idea to take it off while the unit is still running.

Therefore, the area studied by Kononenko and Prokopyeva belongs to one of the few elements of the Soyuz spacecraft, which is not necessary for the ship to return to Earth. Actually, that's it deterrent to return the capsule: if it is not dropped, the Soyuz capsule will not be able to slow down to a safe landing speed, because the extra weight will outweigh the capabilities of the main parachutes.

The hole is located in the most forward section of the ship, called the "orbital module", in which there are auxiliary systems, such as docking equipment and toilet for the crew. A mission that somehow lost access to the orbital module could potentially be unpleasant and probably considered a failure, but the crew would not be in imminent danger and could still return to Earth, which is ultimately the most important. When the ascent is used as a place to store cargo on the International Space Station, but when the unit is undocking from the Station, it is basically self-burden.

During Mir's mission at the end of the eighties, the orbiter module was actually ejected much earlier to reduce the mass of the vehicle, and therefore the amount of fuel needed to re-attempt the incineration. But in the Soyuz TM-5 mission this led to an embarrassing situation in which the vehicle was unable to accomplish the planned task, but already threw away the orbital module. While the crew eventually landed safely, a 24-hour period spent without a toilet or docking with the Mir station was at least an unpleasant experience. Since then, the orbital module is not expelled from Soyuz until the burn has already been burned and the vehicle is not at the point of no return.

Difficult commuting

Eventually, the danger posed by the Soyuz crew by opening the outer part of the orbital module was considered minimal, because it would not hold it for long. In view of the potential benefits, namely the collection of evidence that may allow Roskosmos to determine how and when the hole in the unit was created, it was a risk worth calculating. But making the decision to carry out an improvised operation was easy, someone else had to climb there and do it.

Each time an astronaut leaves the relatively safe boundaries of his units and exits the hatch, an element of risk arises. But in this case, the problem is complicated by the fact that Soyuz was never to be operated from outside. Unlike the space station itself, there are no convenient handles or attachment points for astronauts. This meant that the only way to reach the orbiter module was to use a sliding boom. After joining the end, the crew member can be moved to the post by a colleague and can work in an area that has no attachment points.

Interestingly, such a maneuver is not unprecedented. A similar method was used in 2005, when astronaut Steve Robinson was sent to repair the Space Shuttle Discovery. Since the bottom of the shuttle was perfectly smooth, it had to be moved to the position at the end of the robot's shuttle arm. Although in this case the operation was significantly simplified by the fact that the working Soyuz was safely docked at the station, not free movement, as in the case of Discovery.

The investigation continues

While initially having difficulty finding a small hole with a diameter of 2 mm, Kononenko and Prokopyev slightly expanded the search area and could finally take pictures of the mysterious wound, and even collect samples that will be returned to Roscomos for analysis. . Because it is an active investigation with potentially criminal implications, little has been said about what men found during the study. However, the fact that Soyuz's outer insulation and shielding were intact is a greater proof that the hole was not placed by any external means.

At the time of writing, Soyuz MS-09 made a successful landing in the steppes of Kazakhstan; with Serena Auñón-Chancellor, Alexander Gerst and Sergey Prokopyev, all in good health after 197 days in space. The safe return of the multinational crew is ultimately the most important, but questions about what has happened to MS-09 still need to be answered. The space capsule apparently damaged by human hands and the failure of the MS-10 amplifier due to improperly installed sensor caused the besieged Russian space industry to be in a particularly bad light, just months before testing SpaceX and Boeing for testing their manned spacecraft. If the glaring problems of production and quality assurance can not be solved, the famous Soyuz spacecraft may soon be pushed to the side for 50 years after the first flight.


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