On Tuesday, two Russian cosmonauts spent seven hours and 45 minutes on a spacewalk, working to solve the mystery of who or what poked a hole in the Soyuz spacecraft. The crew quickly located and sealed the tiny hole that created a slight loss of pressure, and space officials said the station has remained safe to operate.
In late August, the ISS crew discovered an insignificant air leak, caused by a microfracture on a wall of the living section of the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft, docked to the ISS.
Head of Russia's State Space Corporation Roscosmos Dmitry Rogozin stated in early October that a commission investigating the appearance of the hole ruled out a manufacturing flaw as the cause of the incident. Now, with the Soyuz nearing its reentry date, Russian cosmonauts aboard the ISS will venture out into space to get a better look at the damage from the outside.
The cosmonauts will return to Earth next week safely inside the descent module with their samples from the spacewalk, while the two other modules will separate and burn up in the atmosphere.
To reach the area needed to perform the inspection, Kononenko rode at the end of two Russian Strela booms, translating from the Pirs docking compartment where the spacewalk began to the Zarya functional cargo block (FGB) and then up alongside the Soyuz. The residue, stowed inside a bag, was brought back inside the space station and will be returned to Earth for analysis.
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Back when the hole was discovered, Russian MP and former cosmonaut Maxim Surayev suggested that the hole could have been drilled by someone who wanted to return home, although that that would have been a "really low" method.
This was Kononenko's fourth EVA and Prokopyev's second.
And so on Tuesday the 2-millimeter hole led to a foot-long gash, as Kononenko sawed through the debris shield and insulation, looking for clues.
Soyuz MS-09 is set to depart the space station with Prokopyev, Gerst and Aunon-Chancellor at 8:42 p.m. EST Dec. 19 (01:42 GMT Dec. 20).
Prokopyev, who's been on the station for six and half months, will use the MS-09 he's investigating Tuesday to return to Earth with the European Space Agency's Alexander Gerst and NASA's Serena Aunon-Chancellor on December 20. He also has a blog about the International Space Station, called Orbital Velocity.