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Another coolant leak on a Russian space vehicle docked to the ISS could delay plans

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now to news from overseas and off-planet. Russian space managers have delayed sending a replacement Soyuz capsule to the International Space Station after a second spacecraft docked at the ISS sprung a leak. The launch, scheduled for Sunday, is now on hold. Engineers say the crew is not in danger. But as Brendan Byrne of member station WMFE reports, it all raises questions about how three of the station's crew members will get home.

BRENDAN BYRNE, BYLINE: Two hundred and fifty miles above Earth, there are currently seven people on the International Space Station, where operations are continuing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

BYRNE: That's despite coolant leaks on two docked vehicles - a progress supply craft that launched to the station in October and a Soyuz spacecraft that transported two Russian cosmonauts and a U.S. astronaut to the station in September. When they'll return now is unclear, says space industry analyst Laura Forczyk.

LAURA FORCZYK: There is a little bit of uncertainty. There was a launch that has been postponed. It was supposed to be in a few days for a replacement capsule to return the crew back to the Earth.

BYRNE: The uncertainty began in December, when the Soyuz spacecraft spewed liquid coolant into space. The Russian space agency Roscosmos concluded the first leak was caused by a micrometeoroid impact. After a review, NASA and Roscosmos said the damaged spacecraft was unsafe for the crew to use to return home. The plan to launch an empty capsule to use as a return vehicle is now on hold after the other Russian spacecraft sprung a leak on Saturday. Here's former NASA astronaut Terry Virts.

TERRY VIRTS: Spaceships are having similar malfunctions, and that's very concerning. And it's a really important malfunction.

BYRNE: The capsule's coolant system is responsible for lowering the temperature inside during the fiery reentry through Earth's atmosphere. Virts, who flew to the station on a Soyuz spacecraft in 2014, says the issues with the two spacecraft so close together leads him to believe the issue is not a micrometeoroid strike like first thought.

VIRTS: That's probably no coincidence. And that would lead me to think that it's probably some type of manufacturing defect or something wrong with the spaceship itself.

BYRNE: Analysts say Russia's supply chain has been stretched thin due to the war in Ukraine. Russian engineers are reviewing data ahead of the launch of the empty spacecraft, a mission dubbed MS23 which was scheduled to lift off this week. Space Policy Online editor Marcia Smith says NASA has confidence in its Russian counterparts to make the right decision.

MARCIA SMITH: So I think we just need to wait and see when NASA and Roscosmos feel confident that Soyuz MS23 does not have any design or manufacturing defects and, in fact, will be safe to bring back the Soyuz MS22 crew.

BYRNE: Typically, station crew members serve six-month rotations. If there is a delay launching the empty capsule, the three who are stranded could stay on the station up to a year. NASA says they're prepared for an extended mission should it be necessary and will enjoy their extra time on the orbiting lab as it circles the Earth. For NPR News, I'm Brendan Byrne in Orlando.

(SOUNDBITE OF DE LA SOUL SONG, "GREYHOUNDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brendan Byrne

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