Last week, the International Space Station (ISS) experienced a slight loss in cabin pressure. Astronauts living on the station searched for the source, finding a small, 2-millimeter puncture in one of the Russian Soyuz capsules docked to the orbiting laboratory. A micrometeoroid impact was initially thought to be the cause and the hole, which was successfully plugged. But Agence France-Presse reports that Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, is now claiming the hole in the Soyuz capsule may have been drilled by a technician working on the craft.
Last Thursday, Earth-based personnel monitoring the ISS first noticed the drop in cabin pressure. It was not severe enough to threaten the astronauts aboard the station, so the six-member crew of Expedition 56 was not alerted until they awoke the next day. The leak was traced back to the Russian-built Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft, which is docked with the Rassvet module in the Russian section of the ISS. The small hole was filled with a special type of epoxy while the crew figures out a more permanent fix.
“A spacewalk for the purposes of repairs won’t be required. If an air leak goes from the inside into outer space, then it is better to install a plate precisely from the inside,” Dmitry Rogozin, head of Roscosmos, told the TASS news agency. “Owing to the pressure factor, it will be fastened better.”
The last time the Soyuz capsule flew was in June when it ferried NASA astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor, Russian cosmonaut Sergey Prokopyev and European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gers to the ISS. It is scheduled to bring the same astronauts back to Earth in December.
Rogozin said in a television interview that further investigation of the hole ruled out a micrometeoroid.
“However, it is too early to say definitely what happened,” he told TASS. “But, it seems to be done by a faltering hand … it is a technological error by a specialist. It was done by a human hand — there are traces of a drill sliding along the surface. We don’t reject any theories.”
Even if the hole was drilled, it doesn’t necessarily mean it was deliberate sabotage. It’s possible that a worker on Earth made an unreported mistake. “What is this: a production defect or some premeditated actions?” Rogozin asked. “We are checking the Earth version. But there is another version that we do not rule out: deliberate interference in space.”
If someone on board the craft did drill the hole, which is unlikely, it's probably not malicious. Instead, suggests Russian politician Maxim Surayev, it could have been that someone resorted to an extreme measure to return to Earth.
“We’re all human and anyone might want to go home, but this method is really low,” Surayev, who was on two previous missions to the ISS, told Russian state news agencies, reports The Guardian. “If a cosmonaut pulled this strange stunt – and that can’t be ruled out – it’s really bad. I wish to God that this is a production defect, although that’s very sad too – there’s been nothing like this in the history of Soyuz ships.”
An unnamed source tells the Russian TASS news agency that a production error is a likely culprit since drilling a hole in zero gravity is extremely difficult or impossible. Instead, they suggest the craft was damaged during testing at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan after passing initial safety checks, and someone hastily covered up the mistake. The sealant they used to cover the hole could have then dried up and fallen off after the craft reached the ISS.
Meghan Bartels of Space.com reports that Rogozin is committed to finding the answer. “It is a matter of honor for Energia Rocket and Space Corporation [the company that builds the Soyuz] to find the one responsible for that, to find out whether it was an accidental defect or a deliberate spoilage and where it was done — either on Earth or in space,” Rogozin says.
A hole in a spacecraft is never a minor incident, but this tiny puncture did not put the ISS in immediate danger. Furthermore, it’s in a section of the Soyuz capsule that is jettisoned during its return to Earth, meaning it does not endanger the lives of the crew or long-term health of the space station. NASA has yet to comment on the incident.
Currently, U.S. astronauts rely on Russia and their Soyuz space capsules to reach the ISS since NASA discontinued the space shuttle program in 2011. That arrangement is scheduled to end in November of 2019. Private space companies Boeing and SpaceX are slated to begin ferrying U.S. personnel to the ISS by then. However, a recent U.S. General Accounting Office report suggests that NASA’s certification program may take longer than expected, keeping Americans off the ISS for almost a year unless the U.S. purchases more seats on Soyuz spacecraft.