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Shortly after new Progress freighter docks with ISS, older Progress loses internal pressure

ISS as of February 11, 2023

Shortly after a new Progress freighter docked with ISS early today (shown as Progress 83 in the graphic to the right), the older Progress 82 lost internal pressure, possibly in its coolant system.

On February 11, Roskosmos, citing data from mission control, said that the Progress MS-21 cargo ship docked at the station lost pressure. According to the State Corporation, the hatch connecting the ship’s pressurized compartment with the rest of the station was closed and the vehicle was fully isolated from the ISS’ habitable volume.

…According to unofficial sources, the spacecraft lost all its cooling fluid from its Thermal Control System, SOTR. Several hours after the incident, NASA confirmed that the breach had been limited to the cooling system. At the same time, the US space agency said that the hatches between the cargo ship and the station had remained open, while temperatures and pressures aboard the outpost had remained normal. The subsequent publicly available exchange between the NASA mission control in Houston and a US astronaut Frank Rubio, aboard the ISS, indicated that the coolant system of the Progress MS-21 spacecraft had been completely emptied before the leak stopped.

The report is very unclear. In the first paragraph it suggests the freighter’s atmosphere had leaked out, while its hatches were closed and it was isolated from the station. The second paragraph suggests it only lost pressure and coolant from its coolant system, and the hatches had been open during the event.

Either way, this is the second Russian ferry spacecraft to experience such an event since mid-December, when the Soyuz capsule attached to ISS lost its coolant from what is believed to have been a small impact.

This particular Progress freighter is slated to be undocked from ISS on February 18th, when it will be de-orbited, burning up in the atmosphere over the Pacific. Thus, this leak appears to pose a relatively small risk to the station, as it probably has already been filled with station garbage and was likely ready for disposal anyway.

This incident however raises larger concerns. If it was caused by an impact from an external object, either micrometeorite or space junk, it suggests that the station might face a new increased risk of such events, quite possibly from debris from the Russian anti-satellite test in November 2021. As of November 2022 it was estimated that there were 444 objects still in orbit, with all but 18 expected to fall back to earth by 2025. It could be that one of those tracked objects hit ISS, or a different object that has not been tracked.

Or possibly we are seeing evidence of some quality control problem in the construction of these spacecraft, in Russia. Russia and NASA have still not revealed the results of the investigation into the hole that was drilled into the hull of a Soyuz capsule in 2018. Could there be some sabotage going on the ground in Russia that has not been identified that is designed to cause such leaks sometime after launch?

Some clarity on this issue is now becoming essential.

Genesis cover

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11 comments

  • Col Beausabre

    First time is bad luck
    Second time is coincidence
    Third time -SOMETHING IS SERIOUSLY MESSED

    Russian quality control = oxymoron. Their tanks do just about as well. Back in thhe bad old days, all the Warsaw Pact had to use Russian equipment. The Poles and the Czechs had the policy of pulling the power packs and rebuilding them as soon as the vehicles arrived. Little things like metal chips and filings in the crankcase, blocked oil and water passages….Imagine what consumer products were like.

  • Edward

    Robert wrote: “As of November 2022 it was estimated that there were 444 objects still in orbit, with all but 18 expected to fall back to earth by 2025.

    Those are only the objects that are large enough to be tracked. Smaller objects, such as paint chips or individual screws, that may have separated during that Russian anti-satellite test would be too small to track. We would expect that as a result of the test there would be more smaller objects than larger ones, so it is possible that such tiny debris, even the size of a grain of sand, are now wreaking havoc with ISS. However, we would expect more than just the Russian spacecraft to be damaged; we should be seeing small damage events all over the space station. The ISS was designed to withstand micrometeoroid strikes, but screw-sized objects could be a safety problem. A serious safety problem.

    If it is only the Russian spacecraft having these anomalies, then Robert’s disturbing suspicion about sabotage or quality trouble may be true. That raises concerns about possible other serious safety problems. The RussianSpaceWeb.com article has a picture in which the caption says that the leak “seemingly originated from the same area of the radiator” as on the Soyuz that leaked last December. Since the problem seems to be similar to the previous coolant leak, it seems more likely that it is a quality control problem, but only a problem exterior to the habitable volume, suggesting that there are not yet any imminent safety issues for the crew.

    At the time, Russian officials left the Soyuz MS-23 spacecraft on schedule for launch on February 20, while also planning to revisit the results of the investigation into the Soyuz MS-22 leak, according to [former Roskosmos spokesman] Strugovets, apparently in search for a possible commonality between the two incidents.

    The article is suggesting that if there is a common problem between the two spacecraft, then sending the next Soyuz in a week or so could be an exercise in futility. The new Soyuz may be no safer than the last one.

    Robert is right. The RussianSpaceWeb.com article is terribly confusing, but the paragraphs after the first only reference the coolant system rather than the atmospheric pressure of the habitable volume. Not only is the contradictory reports about the hatch being closed or open confusing, it helps give the impression that the leak was to the habitable volume’s atmosphere. Such confusion makes it difficult to discuss the issue, as we don’t really know whether it is an imminent safety issue or a systematic quality problem that may affect the next Soyuz launch. (Wouldn’t it be ironic if the Russians had to hire American spacecraft in order to avoid needing trampolines or broomsticks to get to the ISS. Or should I not be throwing former Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin’s words back at the Russians?)

  • Dick Eagleson

    Perhaps, as an inducement to accept assignment to a Soyuz seat swap ride, Western astronauts can be issued a Congressional Space Medal of Honor before their missions. Alternatively, we could abandon the now clearly risky seat swap idea altogether. If Russians, whose behavior in Ukraine suggests a fairly high tolerance for casualties, want to continue rolling the dice on these Soyuz orbital junk piles, that’s their lookout. But no one else should be riding these clunkers.

  • pzatchok

    Does anyone have a picture of the impact hole in the fist one? Even when they undocked it they could have got better pictures of it than those wobbly videos they did have.

    Does anyone have a picture of the holes in the new one?

    Impact damage is looking less and less likely considering nothing else is being filled with holes. And its the very same system that was hit last time.
    I wonder if the cosmonaut really trust the replacement that is supposed to bring them home. or will Russia quietly ask for a ride on the Dragon?

  • Dave

    This was a confusing set of details. Lost pressure, hatch shut, no, it was coolant pressure, hatch not shut? How does that get messed up?

    Oh, did you hear they shot down another “thing” over the north coast of Alaska. And the Canadians shot one down too. No, it was the same one, just into the Yukon from Alaska. So they shut down Montana airspace. Which is 600 miles away.

    Meanwhile, Kylie Jenner has some new pics up if you want to see.

    Bread & circuses. Am I being too hard about this?

  • Chris

    A question that may be more ominous is what if this is a design problem? A QC issue may be corrected with a clean up of the manufacturing process. A design issue is more fundamental. A very good manufacturing process would faithfully reproduce the flaw.
    Improved or updated qualification tests could reveal the design issue, but if the design process has specified the tests the the fault continues. The design process is important.

  • James Street

    “Oh, did you hear they shot down another ‘thing’ over the north coast of Alaska. And the Canadians shot one down too.”

    And China. But cheap Chinese knockoff UFOs have different font and more plastic components. Pretty close though.

    Now China Says It Has Spotted a UFO
    https://www.newsweek.com/china-says-spotted-unidentified-flying-object-ufo-1780648

  • Boobah

    Soyuz has been flying since 1967, so why would a design problem only show up a half century after the first flight? The switchover to the current generation of Soyuz, MS, was back in 2016, so why would the problems wait a score of missions to develop?

    Nah, design seems unlikely to me.

  • Boobah: I agree. You are correct, this isn’t likely a design issue, which is why I raised the issue of that past sabotage. It is very possible the Russian investigation into the drilled hole in 2018 never identified the culprit. If so, that person could still be working in their facilities, and have chosen to sabotage the coolant systems in a similar way: Drill a hole, patch it poorly so that after a period of time in space the patch fails.

    Neither Roscosmos nor NASA has ever released exterior images of the 2018 hole. Nor have they released images of the exterior of the hole in the December leak. It would be very helpful to compare.

  • Edward

    Robert wrote: “You are correct, this isn’t likely a design issue, which is why I raised the issue of that past sabotage.

    It could be a design issue if there has been a recent design change, but I think that NASA or Russia would have already brought up this possibility, so I doubt it is a design issue.

    It is kind of like watching on television a football game with poor coverage. We don’t have a sense of what is going on, but they sure do shout when there is a fumble or a goal.

  • pzatchok

    What liquid do they use to cool the craft? Anhydrous Ammonia?

    If so then a special metal could be used to patch a hole in the piping that would dissolve over time.

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