Relief is on the way for three astronauts who are currently dependent on a leaky spacecraft docked to the International Space Station.
A replacement Russian Soyuz spacecraft, called the MS-23, is destined for the International Space Station (ISS) to be the new ride home for cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitry Petelin and NASA astronaut Frank Rubio. The launch took place flawlessly on Thursday (February 23) from the Russian-run Baikonur Cosmodrome at 7:24 PM EST (0024 GMT or 3:34 AM local time, Friday, February 24).
“A nominal ascent into orbit for Soyuz MS-23,” NASA spokesman Rob Navias said during the launch’s live commentary. “A perfect ride to orbit the vehicle that will bring home Frank Rubio, Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitry Petelin later this year.”
The Soyuz MS-23 is scheduled to dock with the ISS on Saturday (February 25) to finally give the three crew members a fully functional lifeboat for the first time in two months following a coolant leak in their old Soyuz MS-22. Docking is scheduled for 8:01 pm EST Feb 26 (0101 GMT Feb 27) and will be streamed live here on Space.com via NASA Television (opens in new tab).
The launch and docking of the Soyuz comes amid a very busy week for ISS activity, as SpaceX’s Crew-6 Crew Dragon spacecraft is set to launch four astronauts to NASA on Monday (Feb. fit about 24 hours later. Both events will be simulcast on NASA Television’s Space.com.
Related: Russia releases first images of damage to leaking Soyuz spacecraft (pics)
Problems for the trio of Expedition 69 crew began on December 14 after their docked Soyuz, called MS-22, developed a coolant leak. Although the incident did not pose an immediate threat to the ISS or its activities, the Russian federal space agency Roscosmos determined that a new Soyuz was needed to replace the leaking MS-22. A micrometeoroid impact on the Soyuz was cited as the cause of the leak, Roscosmos said.
Scheduling the Soyuz launch had some setbacks. At first, the Soyuz MS-23 was scheduled to fly a normal crew replacement mission in late spring. Roscosmos postponed it until February 19th and opted to launch it without a crew, to give three full seats to the crew of the trapped Soyuz MS-22. Instead of people, he carries 945 pounds of supplies and a teddy bear to serve as an indicator of weightlessness.
In the meantime, there were options for bringing the crew home in an emergency; two cosmonauts could use the damaged MS-22, Roscosmos said, as two crew members would heat the spacecraft by one degree less than three. Rubio, in turn, would use an extra seat on the SpaceX Crew-5 spacecraft already docked, joining four other astronauts should the need arise to leave the ISS.
Related: Russia will launch a replacement Soyuz for the space station on Thursday (February 23)
Soyuz MS-23’s launch schedule was further complicated after a coolant leak from the Progress-82 freighter into the complex on February 11. At first, Roscosmos held off the launch of Soyuz MS-23 until March, in case the two spacecraft had related leaks. New photos from Progress after the scheduled Feb 17 detachment, however, allowed Roscosmos to move forward with an accelerated Feb 23 Soyuz launch date.
The two coolant leaks, Roscosmos officials determined, were unrelated and caused by separate micrometeoroid strikes on each spacecraft. However, the schedule change caused a major change in the activities of the ISS: the three members of the Soyuz MS-22/MS-23 crew will double their time in space to about a year, until September 2023.
The extra time in space will allow Roscosmos to launch yet another Soyuz, this time with a crew, to serve as a relief for the Expedition 69 crew trio. SpaceflightNow. (opens in new tab)
Elizabeth Howell is co-author of “Why am I taller (opens in new tab)?” (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book on space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or Facebook (opens in new tab).