The Russian Space Agency Roscosmos has acknowledged a leak (officially a "depressurization”) on the Progress MS-21 cargo ship (Progress 82), which is currently docked to the International Space Station (ISS). Official statements indicate there is no immediate threat to the Station or crew – but with the effects of a previous leak still unresolved, the event arouses concerns over whether the problem may be more systematic than it seemed.
Two months ago, a spacewalk was canceled when a leak was reported from a spacecraft docked to the ISS. The craft in question was the Soyuz MS-22. Far more serious than the missed spacewalk was that MS-22 appears to be unsafe to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, at least with people on board. MS-22 was intended to bring two Cosmonauts and one Astronaut back to Earth from the ISS in April, and the leak has sparked a scramble to find an alternative.
The MS-22 leak was blamed on a micrometeorite strike, something that is hard to avoid in space. However, the Progress 82 leak also occurred in the coolant system; a second hit in such a short amount of time is a strange coincidence. Air pressure within the vehicle is unaffected, and according to NASA; “The hatches between the Progress 82 and the station are open, and temperatures and pressures aboard the station are all normal.”
Progress 82 was scheduled to leave the space station on Friday to return to Earth. Since the plan was for it to be carrying waste from the station and be deorbited over the Pacific Ocean, it is possible this will go ahead – if a cooling system failure makes things dangerously hot on the return journey, the waste is unlikely to complain. That’s in contrast with MS-22, which could prove lethal to anyone on board were it to be used to return humans as originally planned.
Progress 82 has been docked to the ISS since October 2022, and no previous problems had been reported. “Officials are monitoring all International Space Station systems and are not tracking any other issues,” NASA reported in a blog.
Although this event currently appears not to be serious, coming on top of a series of other malfunctions with Russian supply and transport vehicles, it emphasizes how easy it is for something to go wrong in space. In low Earth orbit, there is usually an opportunity to send a replacement vehicle, as is happening with MS-22.
However, crewed missions to the Moon leave much less margin for error, and Mars voyages have effectively none. If you’re wondering why, 53 years after Neil Armstrong’s one small step, we’re still a long way from doing anything similar on another planet, this is your answer.
It is inevitable some people will see a connection to the Ukraine invasion, perhaps blaming the events on sabotage or something to do with the impending end to Russian involvement with the ISS. However, in 2021 – well before the war’s beginning – a series of cracks were found in the ISS’s Russian module. Although the leaks from those cracks were a thousand times below the emergency threshold, they still indicated a problem with quality control that may underlie the recent more serious depressurization.
None of this creates much confidence in the claim by the Chief Designer of Russia’s future Orbital Station in an interview with TASS that his creation; “Will be practically ‘eternal.’”