Space station crew to inspect mysterious hole on spacewalk
This May 23, 2011, file photo released by NASA shows the International Space Station, taken by Expedition 27 crew member Paolo Nespoli from the Soyuz TMA-20 following its undocking. (AP Photo/NASA, Paolo Nespoli, File)
Marcia Dunn, The Associated Press
Published Tuesday, December 11, 2018 11:31AM EST
Last Updated Tuesday, December 11, 2018 4:11PM EST
MOSCOW -- Spacewalking astronauts ripped through thick insulation on a capsule docked to the International Space Station on Tuesday, looking for clues to a mysterious drilled hole that leaked precious cabin air four months ago.
The space station's crew patched the tiny hole in the Soyuz capsule last August, using epoxy and gauze. Russian space officials wanted the site surveyed from the outside, before the capsule's return to Earth next week with Russian Sergei Prokopyev and two others.
That section of the capsule will be jettisoned as usual before re-entry, and so poses no risk for descent.
Prokopyev and Russian Oleg Kononenko had to use a pair of telescoping booms to reach the Soyuz. It took nearly four hours for them to cross the approximately 100 feet (30 metres) to get to the capsule.
The insulation proved harder to remove than expected. Russian Mission Control outside Moscow urged the men to take their time and to rest, even though they were running behind.
The spacewalkers' job was to collect samples of any epoxy sealant that may have protruded from the hole. To expose the external hull, Kononenko needed to cut away a 10-inch (25-centimetre) swatch of thermal insulation and debris shield, a slow and difficult task.
Bits of shredded silver insulation floated away, as Kononenko slashed at it with a knife.
The capsule leak caused a flap between the U.S. and Russian space agencies, following its discovery at the end of August. Russian space chief Dmitry Rogozin observed that the hole could have been drilled during manufacturing - or in orbit. The space station's commander at the time flatly denied any wrongdoing by himself or his crew.
Rogozin has since backpedaled his statement, blaming the news media for twisting his words.
A Russian investigation is ongoing, according to Rogozin, and samples collected during the spacewalk will be returned to Earth on the Soyuz. The spacewalk findings could lead to better repair techniques in the future, officials said.
The Soyuz is scheduled to depart the orbiting lab on Dec. 19, U.S. time, with Prokopyev, American Serena Aunon-Chancellor and German Alexander Gerst, the station's current skipper. It ferried them up in June.
Remaining aboard the 250-mile-high (400-kilometre-high) outpost for the next six months will be an American, Russian and Canadian who arrived last week.