If you happened to tune into NASA TV on December 11th, you’d have been treated to a sight perhaps best described as “unprecedented”: Russian cosmonauts roughly cutting away the thermal insulation of a docked Soyuz spacecraft with a knife and makeshift pair of shears. Working in a cloud of material ripped loose during the highly unusual procedure, cosmonauts Oleg Kononenko and Sergey Prokopyev were effectively carving out their own unique place in space history. Their mission was to investigate the external side of the suspicious hole in the Soyuz MS-09 capsule which caused a loss of air pressure on the International Space Station earlier in the year.
That astronauts don’t generally climb out the hatch and use a knife to hack away at the outside of their spacecraft probably goes without saying. Such an event has never happened before, and while nobody can predict the future, odds are it’s not something we’re likely to see again. Keep in mind that this wasn’t some test capsule or a derelict, but a vehicle slated to return three human occupants to Earth in a matter of days. Cutting open a spacecraft in which human lives will shortly be entrusted is not a risk taken likely, and shows how truly desperate the Russian space agency Roscosmos is to find out just who or what put a hole in the side of one of their spacecraft.
Close inspection from the inside of the spacecraft confirmed the hole wasn’t made by an impact with a micrometeorite or tiny piece of space junk as was originally assumed. It appears to have been made with a drill, which really only allows for two possible scenarios: intentional sabotage or a mistake and subsequent cover-up. In either event, a truly heinous crime has been committed and those responsible must be found. As luck would have it the slow leak of air pressure was detected early and the hole was patched before any damage was done, but what if it hadn’t?
Even if you don’t consider yourself an armchair astronaut, it’s pretty clear that a spacecraft’s external insulation and shielding isn’t designed to be removed while in space, much less hacked at with improvised tools by a couple of spacewalking comrades. As a general rule, if the designer thought it was important enough to protect a part of the vehicle with multiple levels of thermal and micrometeorite protection, it’s probably not a great idea to take it off while the craft is still in operation.
That being said, the area being investigated by Kononenko and Prokopyev is on one of the few components of the Soyuz spacecraft which isn’t necessary for the craft to return to Earth. In fact, it’s actually a deterrent to the capsule’s return: if it doesn’t get jettisoned the Soyuz capsule won’t be able to slow down to safe landing speed since the added weight would exceed the capability of the main parachutes.
The hole is located in the most forward section of the craft, known as the “Orbital …read more