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Unexplained hole aboard Soyuz puzzles crew, stirs up wild theories
Stories abound on the origin of a drill hole aboard the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft parked at the International Space Station. The small breach was quickly isolated after its discovery on August 29, but its origin still remains a mystery.
On August 29, a slow air leak aboard the International Space Station, ISS, caused some pressure drop inside the outpost and was eventually isolated to a small hole in the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft docked at the orbital lab.
According to NASA, on August 29, 2018, mission control in Houston noticed a pressure drop aboard the International Space Station. On the morning of August 30, NASA issued a following statement:
According to Russian sources, the problem was found in the Habitation Module of the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft, where the crew detected two small cracks, reaching 1.5 millimeters in size. According to mission control in Houston, the small leak was varying around 0.6 millimeters on mercury table per hour (0.8 millibars per hour). Alexander Gerst first discovered the leak on the wall behind the toilet unit and used his finger to initially plug it. (According to US sources, the second hole was found to be internal and not breaching the hull, while Russian sources later reported the existence of only one crack.)
The cosmonauts photographed the affected area and sent it to mission control for analysis. The first estimates indicated that the breach could have been caused by a meteor or debris strikes which had punctured the hull of the spacecraft. Head of the Roskosmos State Corporation Dmitry Rogozin confirmed the incident but said that the problem had been resolved. According to Rogozin, the crew had to close off various sections of the station to isolate the leak.
According to ESA sources, the area of the leak was temporarily sealed with Kapton tape, while Russian cosmonauts were working on a permanent sealing patch using a special repair kit with epoxy-saturated gauze. There were apparently some disagreement between the US commander of the station Drew Feustel and Russian crew members about the need to first test the repair techniques on the ground, but, the cosmonauts ultimately decided to apply the patch as soon as possible on the advice from mission control in Korolev.
The second slightly larger patch was apparently added later, according to publicly available communications between the ISS crew and mission control. Some bulging was reported on the patch, apparently as a result of an air bubble in the glue. Checks with ultrasound reportedly showed that the leak had stopped.
It was later reported that mission control had noticed first signs of drop in pressure around August 28, but because the rate of leak had been below the accepted 0.5 mmHg limit, the crew had not been alerted. Only when the leak reached 0.8 mmHg, mission controllers informed the crew.
After some drop during the night from August 29 to August 30, the air pressure inside the ISS was brought to normal and was reported as stable at sea level. In the meantime, mission control informed the crew that all scheduled activities for August 30 had been cancelled.
On August 31, Roskosmos announced that the monitoring conducted throughout the night from August 30 had shown no pressure changes inside the spacecraft. Rogozin also informed journalists that the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft could be used for safe return to Earth.
The investigators initially considered an external impact on the spacecraft, as well as structural failure, such as metal fatigue, as possible culprits in the breach. However, the visual appearance of the hole looked like it could have been left by a mechanical drill, possibly during the manufacturing process on the ground.
On September 3, Russian media confirmed the on-the-ground origin of the hole, citing two industry sources. According to these reports, a person responsible for the production defect had been also located. Whoever drilled that hole apparently realized the mistake during the production and patched it with glue. (Interestingly, there were no visible glue traces in the available photos of the hole). As a result, the breach was not detected during the leak checks of the vehicle on the ground and had not manifested itself in the first two months in orbit. However, the glue eventually dried up and was pushed out (by internal pressure), according to this scenario.
During a meeting of the investigation commission on September 3, RKK Energia made a decision to initiate an inspection of all Soyuz MS and Progress MS spacecraft undergoing assembly at the company's factory in Korolev near Moscow within a few days. The vehicles awaiting launch at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, were also scheduled to be re-checked beginning the following week. More than 10 ships in various stages of production would have to be inspected, RIA Novosti reported.
On September 4, the Head of Roskosmos Dmitry Rogozin reconfirmed the fact that the two holes in the Soyuz had been made with a drill. According to Rogozin, the the drilling was "amateurish" because, the drill was "sliding" on the hull of the spacecraft.
"We are checking the "ground-based" (origin) scenario," Rogozin was quoted as saying, "However we are not discounting an intentional impact in space. There are several drill engagement attempts there... There is a clear impact on the hull from the inside."
Rogozin said that RKK Energia would have to find the person who had made the hole and determine whether it was a production defect or an intentional action.
As of September 4, the investigation was scheduled to be wrapped up in the middle of the month, Roskosmos said.
Sergei Prokopiev shows a patched hole inside the Habiation Module of the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft.
The accident with a drill hole discovered aboard Soyuz made a bizarre turn around September 6. By that time, the Russian investigators had reportedly all but ruled out the ground-based origin of the drill hole. This conclusion was reportedly made after the review of the processing documentation, interviews with the Soyuz assembly personnel and it was based on photos delivered by the Russian cosmonauts. In particular, the attention of investigators was attracted by multiple scratches around the hole, indicating several unsuccessful attempts to engage the drill bit, which seemed to be typical of work in weightlessness. As many as eight attempts were apparently made, before the drill had finally penetrated the hull.
At the same time, the investigators reportedly cleared of their suspicions a former worker at RKK Energia who participated in the production of the Soyuz MS-09.
Instead, Russian investigators re-focused on the actions of the ISS crew, particularly NASA astronauts. Because the natural origin of the hole, such as impact by meteoroids or by space junk, was long out of the question, the officials decided to investigate very improbable sabotage scenarios.
The easiest explanation under such circumstances would be a mental health issue that could cause one of the crew members to commit such a nearly suicidal act. Roskosmos reportedly even requested NASA to provide information on the mental health of its current crew members aboard the ISS. NASA apparently refused citing medical privacy concerns, only fueling further Russian suspicions.
On September 11, the Head of Roskosmos Dmitry Rogozin also told reporters that security services had already been involved into the investigation. He also admitted that the situation had turned out to be much more complicated than previously thought and he announced that the State Corporation had formed its own investigative commission to look into the incident.
Internally, Russians also wondered whether their recent disputes with NASA over certification of newly developed US spacecraft for upcoming flights with astronauts and cosmonauts onboard, could trigger a "backlash" from the Americans aimed to undermine the Soyuz, Russian industry sources told RussianSpaceWeb.com. (The American vehicles would end the monopoly of the Soyuz in bringing crews to the station.) On September 12, the Moscow-based Kommersant daily quoted another improbable theory originating from the Russian investigation circles. According to that story, the motive for the drilling of the hole by the astronauts was to trigger the urgent return to Earth of the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft due to some hidden medical problems with one of the astronauts, which the Americans wanted to camouflage behind the accident. The culprit behind the leak would never be found, if the crew left the station in emergency, the proponents of that hypothesis said.
As of an opportunity for the US crew to drill in the Soyuz, Russian officials claimed that the astronauts could have access to the spacecraft in August, when the two Russian cosmonauts were performing a spacewalk. The US crew members had an electric drill onboard, the Russian sources said. The Russians were also suspicious that the leak had first been detected by the US crew members during a sleep period.
To test these fantastic theories, the Russian investigators discussed preserving and bringing back to Earth air filters aboard the Russian Segment of the station. The filters could potentially capture micro debris from the drilling, if it had been performed in orbit, Russian industry sources told RussianSpaceWeb.com.
The Russian suspicions were serious enough for the US commander of the station Drew Feustel to publicly deny them in an interview with ABC News.
On September 10, the Russian cosmonaut Sergei Prokopiev, from the Soyuz MS-09 crew, reported from the ISS that the whole international crew had excellent relations and was working in cooperative friendly spirit. Prokopiev also provided a video tour of the Habitation Module in the Soyuz with the patched up hole.
The story was also fiercely debated in the Russian press and on the Russian-language Internet. The authors of the sabotage scenarios were themselves quickly suspected of an attempt to shift the blame elsewhere from the beleaguered Russian space industry. The incident also gave rise to a whole plethora of Internet folklore, including numerous jokes, memes and even a couple of humorous poems in Russian language...
On September 11, Sergei Saveliev, Deputy Director General at Roskosmos, announced that the State Corporation would inform all its partners on the results of the investigation into the Soyuz leak and would seek other agencies' endorsement of the Russian conclusions.
The next day, Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov, who was appointed in May to oversee the rocket industry, said that it would be absolutely unacceptable to drop even a shadow of an accusation either on cosmonauts or astronauts while the investigation was in progress. "It is not excluded that the culprit is in a production defect (and) many theories can be drawn up," Borisov was quoted as saying by the official Russian media, "The fact remains, the pressure began falling after several months of the ship's presence in orbit. The hole is very small, it is good that it was noticed in time and taken care of."
According to Borisov, the ISS crew is a united collective where there are no political disagreements. "Today, before the conclusion of the investigation, hanging labels and doing a witch hunt is, mildly speaking, shortsighted and dangerous," Borisov said.
Borisov's statement also coincided with the report that early simulations performed on the ground by investigators at the spacecraft manufacturer, RKK Energia, showed a need for a half-a-meter-long drill in order to make a hole inside the cramped compartment under the required angle. However, the same hole could be easily made inside the unfurnished Habitation Module during its assembly, industry sources said quoted by RIA Novosti.
In order to confirm the leading hypothesis that the hole aboard Soyuz MS-09 was drilled on the ground, Russian space officials began planning a spacewalk on the exterior of the station.
If substantial traces of the sealant can be found on the exterior of the spacecraft, they could help to prove the theory that the hole was drilled from the inside during the production of the spacecraft, but it was then patched up from the exterior side of the spacecraft. The crew found no traces of the sealant inside the module, but an endoscope examination showed what appeared to be scratches from a drill on the internal side of the meteoroid shield confirming the fact of drilling from the inside.
According to industry sources, the simulations conducted on the ground indicated that when a generally available sealant (which can be purchased at a regular hardware store), is applied to the hole from the exterior, it could hold up to one atmosphere of pressure difference, industry sources told RussianSpaceWeb.com.
The inspection showed that even with the micrometeoroid shielding installed, it might be possible to reach the hole from the exterior of the spacecraft. The meteoroid shielding could also help to cover up the sealant, which otherwise could be detected during the visual inspection of the spacecraft.
If the spacewalk is attempted, the cosmonauts would have to get to the Habitation Module, peel off soft thermal layers blanketing the spacecraft and then cut through the meteoroid shielding bordering this section of the spacecraft at a distance of around 1.5 centimeters from its pressurized hull.
To access the area of the hole on the exterior of the Soyuz, Russian officials are developing a spacewalk scenario relying on the available Strela boom, GStM. The telescopic device can be used to carry a cosmonaut secured to a special anchor at the end of the boom to a location aboard the station otherwise inaccessible to spacewalkers due to lack of railings.
On September 14, when starting his pre-flight exam in preparation for launch aboard the Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft on October 11, Russian cosmonaut Aleksei Ovchinin re-confirmed first reports dating back to September 8 that he and Sergey Prokopyev would conduct a spacewalk. One of the tasks of the excursion, which could take place in November or December 2018, would be the inspection of the Soyuz. Another spacewalk could be added to the flight plan, if necessary, RIA Novosti reported. There was even apparently talk at Roskosmos of a joint Russian-American spacewalk to ensure the maximum trust among the partners in this politically sensitive investigation.
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Sergei Prokopiev shows a patched hole inside the Habiation Module of the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos