The Russian Space Agency Roscosmos has acknowledged a leak (officially a “depressurization”) in the cargo ship Progress MS-21 (Progress 82), which is currently docked at 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 raises concerns about whether the problem may be more systemic than it appeared.
Two months ago, a spacewalk was called off when a leak was reported from a spacecraft docked to the ISS. The craft in question was the Soyuz MS-22. Much more serious than the missed spacewalk was that MS-22 appears to be unsafe to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere, at least with people on board. MS-22 was intended to bring two cosmonauts and an ISS astronaut back to Earth in April, and the leak sparked a scramble to find an alternative.
The MS-22 leak was blamed on a micrometeorite strike, something difficult to avoid in space. However, the Progress 82 leak also occurred in the cooling system; a second strike in such a short time is a strange coincidence. The air pressure inside the vehicle is unaffected and, according to NASA; “The hatches between Progress 82 and the station are open, and temperatures and pressures aboard the station are normal.”
Progress 82 was scheduled to leave the space station on Friday to return to Earth. As the plan was to transport waste from the station and out of orbit over the Pacific Ocean, it’s possible that could happen – if a cooling system failure makes things dangerously hot on the return journey, the waste is unlikely to complain. This is in contrast to the MS-22, which could prove lethal to anyone on board if used to return humans as originally intended.
Progress 82 has been docked with the ISS since October 2022 and no previous issues have been reported. “Authorities are monitoring all systems on the International Space Station and are not tracking any other issues,” NASA said in a blog post.
While this event currently appears to be non-serious, adding to a host of other problems with Russian supply and transport vehicles, it underscores how easy it is for something to go wrong in space. In low Earth orbit, there is often an opportunity to send a replacement vehicle, as is happening with the MS-22.
However, manned missions to the Moon leave far less room for error, and trips to Mars effectively do not. If you’re wondering why, 53 years after Neil Armstrong’s small step, we’re still a long way from doing something similar on another planet, this is your answer.
It’s inevitable that some people will see a connection to the invasion of Ukraine, perhaps blaming the events on sabotage or something to do with the imminent end of Russian involvement with the ISS. However, in 2021 – well before the outbreak of war – a series of cracks were found in the Russian module of the ISS. Even though leaks from these cracks were 1,000 times below the emergency limit, they still indicated a quality control issue that may have been behind the more severe recent depressurization.
None of this creates much confidence in the claim by the chief designer of Russia’s future Orbital Station in a TASS interview that his creation; “It will be practically ‘forever’.”