Astronauts stranded by space debris return home

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After 371 days and nearly 6000 orbits around the planet, a NASA astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts have finally returned to Earth’s surface after a collision with space debris led to an extended stay aboard the International Space Station.

NASA astronaut Frank Rubio and Russian cosmonauts Dmitry Petelin and Sergey Prokopyev, originally flew out to the ISS in September 2022, launching from Kazakhstan aboard a Russian Soyuz MS-22 capsule. The mission was intended to last only 180 days with the three men originally scheduled to return to Earth in March of this year using the same Soyuz spacecraft.

However, in mid-December the capsule began leaking coolant into space while docked to the ISS due to a suspected collision with a small space rock. A NASA livestream on the day of the collision showed a “visible stream of flakes” of coolant from the Soyuz capsule causing the cancellation of a planned spacewalk.

Russian engineers were concerned that the loss of coolant would cause dangerous overheating to the electronics and passengers of the spacecraft if a manned return flight was attempted. The damaged capsule returned to Earth without the three men in March 2023.

Roscosmos reported that the men had taken the news of their mission extension “positively”

A replacement unmanned Soyuz MS-23 capsule was launched in February 2023 alongside announcements that the mission would be extended by a further six months with a return flight scheduled for September 2023. The launch of the replacement spacecraft was delayed after another Russian spacecraft, the supply ship Progress MS-21, also experienced a coolant leak while docked to the ISS.

Roscosmos concluded that this leak was also likely caused by an “exterior impact” with a tiny space rock after reviewing photos and video showing small holes sustained to the exterior, radiator, and solar panels of the supply ship.

At the time of the replacement capsule launch Roscosmos reported that the men had taken the news of their mission extension “positively”. A replacement crew arrived at the ISS in early September and the three men finally made the trip home aboard the replacement Soyuz MS-23 capsule, making a safe parachute-assisted landing in rural Kazakhstan.

The 371-day stint set a new record for the longest US spaceflight

The mission was NASA astronaut Frank Rubio and Russian cosmonaut Dmitry Petelin’s first spaceflight, having previously worked as a helicopter pilot and an engineer respectively, and was Prokopyev’s second long term stay at the space station. The 371-day stint set a new record for the longest US spaceflight, with Rubio smashing the previous record held by Mark Vande Hei by over two weeks.

The currently world record for the longest spaceflight remains at 437 days set by Russian cosmonaut Valery Polyakov in the mid-90s. Current ISS missions typically last six months, with NASA having released no plans for any further year-long missions in the future.

After his return to Earth, Rubio, 47, commented on the mental challenge of spending such a prolonged period in space, stating that the experience had been more difficult than he initially expected. He further commented that he would have never agreed to spending a whole year in space from the start. These comments echo his initial words after being pulled from the capsule in Kazakhstan: “It’s good to be home”.

Image: NASA via Unsplash

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