For the third time in a year, Russian hardware on the space station is leaking

Will this leak be blamed on “external impacts” as well?

NASA astronaut Jasmin Moghbeli looked out of the large windows on the International Space Station on Monday afternoon and saw that it was snowing in space.

Well, not really snowing. But there were flakes flying by that looked a lot like flurries. They emanated from one of two radiators that service the “Nauka” science module attached to the Russian segment of the space station. The flakes were frozen coolant, and as a protective measure, she and other crew members on the orbiting laboratory closed the shutters on the US segment windows.

Moghbeli and the other crew members were never in any real danger from the radiator leak, but the problem does raise serious concerns about the viability of Russian hardware in space. That is because this is the third such leak that has occurred with Russian equipment in less than a year.

It is not clear what all of this means, but let’s start with what we do know about the three leaks and then discuss what all this might mean for the future of the International Space Station.

Coolant everywhere

The problems with leaky radiators began about 10 months ago.

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 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. A replacement vehicle had to be sent up 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 of the coolant on board a Russian spacecraft leaked into space due to a rupture. This vehicle, which had been docked to the ISS since October, later detached and returned to Earth’s atmosphere without incident.

After these problems, Russian officials blamed both coolant system leaks on “an external impact,” pointing toward a micrometeorite or small fragment of orbital debris as the cause. Although privately some NASA officials questioned whether both of these leaks really were caused by impacts in space rather than technical defects with the hardware, publicly, the US space agency has gone along with the explanation.

A backup radiator starts leaking

The United States and Russia each maintain their own separate segments 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 to conduct scientific experiments. This “Nauka” module finally arrived in 2021, and after some initial difficulties, it has started to operate normally.

The Nauka module has its own radiator. According to an interview conducted in August with a senior Russian space official, Sergei Krikalev, the purpose of this backup radiator was to dump excess heat during scientific experiments.

However, in an update posted Tuesday on the Telegram social media network, the Russian space corporation, Roscosmos, said no scientific experiments have been postponed so far due to the coolant leak. Temperatures today remain comfortable, the cosmonauts report, and they were able to exercise on a treadmill in the module.

NASA confirmed in a blog post that there appear to be no significant impacts to the crew and the space station from the latest leak.

The aging space station

The implications of the latest leak will become more clear over time, but the overall trend is not good. Two coolant leaks attributable to external impacts already strained credulity—NASA has observed no such debilitating damage to its hardware in recent years. Will Russia claim that a third leak was also caused by an external force?

The coolant used by the Russians is fairly toxic, so there are also some contamination concerns as this material impacts various parts of the space station.

Looking at the longer term, there are also a couple of issues laid bare by the latest leak issue. One is that the quality control of Russian space hardware has been slipping in recent years, due at least in part to a lack of investment by that country in its space workforce and facilities on the ground. This probably was the cause of one or more of these leaks. The other issue is that the International Space Station is aging, with certain elements now having flown for nearly 25 years in space. NASA hopes to keep flying the space station until 2030, but will it and its partners be able to?

We should know more information fairly soon. A long meeting between NASA, Roscosmos, and the other international partners is scheduled for later today, where this issue will be discussed.

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