Russian space agency Roscosmos will send an empty spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) in late February to bring home three crewmembers — Sergey Prokopyev, Dmitry Petelin, and Francisco Rubio

The agency has been considering several options after the Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft sustained a leak in December while it was docked at the ISS, causing the vehicle to lose a large amount of coolant.

Following an investigation, Russian officials deemed a return ride in the damaged capsule too risky for the three crewmembers, as the temperature and humidity could rise to intolerable levels without the coolant. It will therefore send another Soyuz spacecraft to the ISS on February 20, and bring home the currently docked vehicle for inspection.

Commenting during a media briefing on Wednesday, Yuri Borisov, the head of Roscosmos, said: “Having analyzed the condition of the spacecraft, thermal calculations, and technical documentation, it has been concluded that the MS-22 must be landed without a crew on board.”

The new plan will cause some disruption to the original schedule. The incoming spacecraft, Soyuz MS-23, was supposed to bring cosmonauts Oleg Kononenko and Nikolai Chub, as well as NASA astronaut Loral O’Hara, to the station in March, but for now they’ll stay on terra firma, while Prokopyev, Petelin, and Rubio will remain on the ISS, probably for at least several months beyond their original March return date. The situation could also impact NASA’s timing for the SpaceX Crew-6 flight, which is currently set for mid-February.

Besides acting as a ride home, the spacecraft docked at the ISS also acts as an emergency escape vehicle should some kind of calamity threaten the orbital outpost. In that case, it’s possible the three crewmembers could enter the damaged spacecraft for refuge, though Roscosmos is still looking into the feasibility of such a procedure.

At the current time, two spacecraft are docked at the ISS — the damaged Soyuz and a SpaceX Crew Dragon that brought two Americans, one Japanese astronaut, and one Russian to the station in October. Last week, it was suggested that the Crew Dragon could be used to bring home all seven astronauts at the end of their mission, though this option now appears to have been shelved.

Roscosmos said the results of its investigation suggest the leak was caused by a micrometeoroid striking the Soyuz capsule at high speed.

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