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Soyuz MS-23 replacement ship arrives at ISS
For the first time an empty crew vehicle is heading to the International Space Station, ISS, to provide a return ride for two cosmonauts and an astronaut whose original ship suffered a major failure. Soyuz MS-23 lifted off on Feb. 24, 2023, on a mission to replace the Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft, which lost all its coolant fluid on Dec. 15, 2022.
Soyuz MS-23 mission at a glance:
Initial mission objectives of Soyuz MS-23
According to the original plans, Soyuz MS-23 was expected to launch with a crew of three on March 16, 2023.
On May 19, 2021, Roskosmos announced that Oleg Kononenko, Nikolai Chub and Andrei Fedyaev were assigned to be primary members of Expedition 69 crew on the ISS. Then, after an agreement with NASA on crew exchange in 2022, Fedyaev was replaced in the crew with American astronaut Loral O'Hara. At the same time, the backup crew of Soyuz MS-23 was comprised of Roskosmos cosmonauts Aleksei Ovchinin, Oleg Platonov and NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson.
On Nov. 8, 2022, Roskosmos announced that Andrei Fedyaev had been assigned to NASA's 6th commercial crew, USCV-6, then scheduled to launch in mid-February 2023 aboard SpaceX' Dragon vehicle. He would be accompanied by two astronauts from NASA and one from the United Arab Emirates.
The mission of Soyuz MS-23 was expected to last until Fall of 2023, but in June 2022, Roskosmos announced that one of its crew members would remain aboard the station until 2024, to provide a seat for the return to Earth of a cosmonaut from Belarus, who, at the time, was scheduled to make a short visit the station in the Fall of 2023.
The Soyuz MS-23 spacecraft, Factory No. 754, was completed at the ZEM plant in Korolev in September 2022. Following its rail trip to Kazakhstan, Soyuz MS-23 was unloaded at the processing complex at Site 254 in Baikonur on Sept. 28, 2022.
The payload fairing assembly for the mission had arrived at the processing complex in Baikonur from RKTs Progress factory in Samara on Oct. 28, 2022, followed by the Soyuz-2-1a rocket on November 23 of the same year. The rocket's components were unloaded from rail cars inside the vehicle processing building at Site 31.
During the first 10 days of November 2022, specialists from RKK Energia conducted checks of onboard avionics and radio systems, as well as autonomous tests of Kazbek cosmonaut chairs for Soyuz MS-23.
Plan changes during launch campaign
On Dec. 17, 2022, in the aftermath of a coolant leak aboard the Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft docked at the ISS, Roskosmos said that preparations of the Soyuz MS-23 spacecraft in Baikonur could be speeded up, if necessary, for an earlier launch. According to unofficial rumors at the time, the March 16 liftoff of Soyuz MS-23 could be advanced to as early as Feb. 19, 2023. The most critical items in the accelerated pre-launch processing were reported to be the ship's Emergency Escape System, SAS, and the payload fairing.
On Jan. 11, 2023, Roskosmos announced the decision to launch Soyuz MS-23 on Feb. 20, 2023, at 04:57:53 Moscow Time, without crew, in order to provide a return ride for the three crew members of the damaged Soyuz MS-22.
The replacement vehicle was scheduled to dock at the ISS on Feb. 22, 2023, at 05:36 Moscow Time, after a two-day, 34-orbit autonomous flight. To free its destination docking port on the Poisk module, MIM2, the Progress MS-21 cargo ship was to be undocked from the same location and deorbited on Feb. 18, 2023.
Instead of a crew, Soyuz MS-23 was slated to deliver around 430 kilograms of cargo to the ISS, including life-support materiel and food, Roskosmos said. According to the Head of the Russian piloted space program Vladimir Soloviev, the payload aboard Soyuz MS-23 would also include new remote-sensing instruments, intended for installation on the ISS, radiation-monitoring sensors and equipment for communications with the ground via Luch relay satellites.
On January 20, Roskosmos announced that the emergency escape rocket for the Soyuz MS-23 mission had been delivered to the Krainy airfield in Baikonur by an Antonov-12 transport plane. It was then transferred to Site 112 for processing and integration.
The vacuum testing of Soyuz MS-23 was conducted in Baikonur from January 18 to 24, 2023, and on Feb. 4, 2023, the meeting of the technical management cleared the spacecraft for fueling. Fueling operations started at Site 31 on Feb. 8, 2023, and were completed on the following day. Soyuz MS-23 was then returned to the spacecraft processing building at Site 254, where it was integrated with the launch vehicle adapter, PKhO, serving as an interface with the Soyuz-2-1a rocket on Feb. 10, 2023. Right before the integration, specialists weighted the spacecraft and completed preparations for loading of cargo into its pressurized compartments.
On Feb. 13, 2023, two days after another coolant leak hit a Russian transport ship at the ISS, this time the Progress MS-21 cargo ship, Roskosmos announced that the launch of Soyuz MS-23 had been postponed until the first 10 days of March 2023, at the earliest to give investigators time to rule out similar issues in the upcoming mission. According to unofficial sources, the interrupted processing of the spacecraft for launch was then authorized to resume around February 16 or 17, after an exterior inspection had not found any visible damage to the ship's radiator. The campaign re-scheduled the rollout to the launch pad to February 18 and the liftoff was targeted for February 21. However, by February 16, the launch was rescheduled for February 24 at 03:34:00 Moscow Time (7:34 p.m. EST on February 23).
Following an ISS orbit correction on February 19, the launch time shifted to 03:24:29 Moscow Time on February 24. The docking was then scheduled for February 26, at 04:01:08 Moscow Time.
On February 18, the Chief Designer Council met at RKK Energia in Korolev to review the status of the Soyuz MS-23 preparations. The group formally approved the launch of the mission on February 24, based on the evaluation of the latest data from the Progress MS-21 coolant leak incident and the additional inspection of the radiator system on Soyuz MS-23, which found no damage, according to Roskosmos. On the same day, the encapsulated payload section with Soyuz MS-23 was transferred from the spacecraft processing building at Site 254 to the vehicle assembly building at Site 31 for integration with the Soyuz-2-1a rocket, which was completed on February 20.
The rollout of the launch vehicle with the spacecraft to Pad 6 in Baikonur took place on the morning of February 21.
According to the Russian mission control, key operations on the launch pad on from Feb. 21 to Feb. 24, 2023, had the following timeline:
Soyuz MS-23 launches
Cargo visible inside the Descent Module of the Soyuz MS-23 spacecraft at launch.
A Soyuz-2 rocket carrying the Soyuz MS-23 spacecraft lifted off from Pad 6 at Site 31 in Baikonur on Feb. 24, 2023, at 03:24:29.466 Moscow Time (7:24 p.m. EST on February 23).
Propelled by the simultaneous thrust of the four engines of the first stage and the single engine of the second stage, the rocket headed almost exactly east to align its ascent trajectory with an orbital plane inclined 51.6 degrees toward the Equator. Slightly less than two minutes into the flight, at an altitude of around 45 kilometers and a velocity of 1.75 kilometers per second, the ship's main emergency escape rocket was jettisoned at L+113.45 seconds, immediately followed by the separation of the four boosters of the first stage at 03:26:27 Moscow Time.
Around 35 seconds later, as the vehicle exited the dense atmosphere at an altitude of 79 kilometers and a velocity of 2.2 kilometers per second, the payload fairing protecting the spacecraft split into two halves and fell away at L+153.70 seconds into the flight, at 03:27:03 Moscow Time.
The second (core) stage of the rocket continued firing until 4.8 minutes into the flight (L+287.70 seconds, 03:28:17 Moscow Time). Moments before the second stage completed its work, the four-chamber engine of the third stage ignited, firing through the lattice structure connecting the two stages. Moments after the separation of the core booster at an altitude of 157 kilometers and a velocity of 3.8 kilometers per second, the tail section of the third stage split into three segments and separated as well.
Following the 8-minute 49-second climb to orbit, the third stage of the rocket was cut off at L+525.77 seconds into the flight and at L+531.76 seconds, it released Soyuz MS-23 into an initial orbit with an inclination 51.6 degrees toward the Equator and an altititude of around 200 kilometers at 03:33:18 Moscow Time.
Immediately after the separation of the spacecraft from the third stage, a camera aboard Soyuz MS-23 showed the deployment of its solar panel, while NASA confirmed that all the ship's antennas had deployed.
Rendezvous and docking
According to the Russian mission control in Korolev, the autonomous rendezvous of Soyuz MS-23 on Feb. 26, 2023, had the following timeline:
The Russian mission control in Korolev planned a total of six maneuvers with the transport ship's engines during the autonomous rendezvous with the station:
These orbital corrections were expected to put the spacecraft into a 384.645 by 427.005-kilometer orbit during its 32nd revolution around the planet. At the time, the station was forecasted to be in a 414.869 by 438.508-kilometer orbit, close enough for the transport ship to perform a fully autonomous rendezvous.
The automated docking of the Soyuz MS-23 spacecraft with the ISS was scheduled for Feb. 26, 2023, at 04:01:08 Moscow Time (8:01 p.m. EST on February 25) after two days in the autonomous flight. As often, the actual docking took place around three minutes earlier, at 7:58 p.m. EST, accroding to NASA. The Russian mission control confirmed that the first contact between the the spacecraft and the station had taken place at 03:58:00 Moscow Time.
On April 6, the Soyuz MS-23 was scheduled to re-dock from the Poisk module, MIM2, to the Prichal node module, UM, on the Russian Segment of the ISS. The move was probably designed to make Poisk available for spacewalks (INSIDER CONTENT) without the need to isolate members of the Soyuz MS-23 crew in their vehicle in case of problems during the re-pressurization of the airlock after the spacewalk, which would otherwise block the transfer into the transport vehicle in the short-sleeve environment.
As of February 2023, the spacecraft was expected to remain at the station until its landing in Kazakhstan on Sept. 27, 2023.
In the first week of March 2023, ISS crew members removed delivered cargo from the seat locations in the Descent Module of the Soyuz MS-23 spacecraft and installed seat liners from Soyuz MS-22 and Crew Dragon into Soyuz MS-23. They also conducted successful tests the Motion Control and Navigation System, SUDN, of the newly arrived vehicle and rehearsed landing operations.
Early return mulled for Soyuz MS-23
On March 9, 2023, the Izvestiya daily quoted unnamed sources within the Russian industry as saying that RKK Energia was considering advancing the launch date of the Soyuz MS-24 spacecraft from Sept. 15, 2023, to June 7 of the same year in order to accelerate the return of the Soyuz MS-23 crew. The existence of such plans indicated that specialists were still concerned about the possibility of a critical leak in the thermal control system (INSIDER CONTENT) of the fresh crew vehicle similar to those that hit two previous transport ships. Such a change in the schedule would also debunk the official explanation of both accidents by Roskosmos and NASA as have been caused by meteors rather than production defects.
The coolant leaks aboard Soyuz MS-22 and Progress MS-21 transport ships took place roughly three months into their respective missions, while the decision to return Soyuz MS-23 in June rather than in September would cut its flight from six to around 3.5 months.
On March 11, Sergei Krikalev, Head of Piloted Space Flight at Roskosmos, confirmed to the Interfax news agency, that an earlier launch for the Soyuz MS-24 was under consideration among several other scenarios.
In the meantime, NASA confirmed that the re-docking of Soyuz MS-23 was scheduled for April 6, 2023. The spacecraft with Frank Rubio, Sergei Prokopiev and Dmitry Petelin onboard was scheduled to undock from the Poisk module, MIM2, at 4:42 a.m. EDT, and after a short autonomous flight, the transport ship would redock to the Prichal node module, UM, at 5:21 a.m. EDT.
Soyuz MS-23 crew members (landing only):
Original logo of the Soyuz MS-23 mission.
An official logo of the Soyuz MS-23 mission.
Oleg Kononenko practicing controls of the spacecraft inside a Soyuz simulator. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Soyuz MS-23 shortly after integration with a launch vehicle adapter. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
The upper composite with the Soyuz MS-23 spacecraft is being prepared for integration with booster stages of the Soyuz-2-1a rocket. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Soyuz-2-1a rocket with Soyuz MS-23 departs the vehiclle assembly building at Site 31 on its way to the launch pad in Baikonur. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Soyuz-2-1a rocket with Soyuz MS-23 arrives at launch pad at Site 31 in Baikonur. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Soyuz-2-1a rocket with Soyuz MS-23 is installed on the launch pad at Site 31 in Baikonur. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Soyuz MS-23 enters orbit as seen by a camera aboard the third stage of the launch vehicle. Credit: Roskosmos
A deployed solar panel aboard Soyuz MS-23 as seen by an onboard camera moments after separation from the third stage of the launch vehicle. Credit: NASA