December 12, 2018
by Marcia Dunn, The Associated Press
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Space astronauts went through thick insulation in a capsule anchored at the International Space Station on Tuesday, searching for clues to a mysterious pierced hole that leaked precious air into the cabin four months ago.
Russians Sergei Prokopyev and Oleg Kononenko spotted the small hole in the outer shell of the Soyuz capsule, more than five hours in their exhausting space walk.
"This is exactly the hole we were looking for, guys," radioed Russia's Mission Control outside Moscow.
Astronauts reported not seeing drill marks around the black spot, as on the inside.
In August, the station crew mended the hole in the Soyuz capsule, gluing it with epoxy and gauze. Russian space authorities wanted the site to be searched from outside before the capsule returned to Earth next week with Prokopyev and two others. This part of the capsule will be discarded as usual prior to atmospheric reentry and therefore, there is no risk of descent.
Prokopyev and Kononenko had to use a pair of telescopic spears to reach Soyuz. It took nearly four hours for them to cross the 30-meter to get there. Then the insulation proved to be harder to remove than expected, taking another one to two hours of effort.
To expose the outer shell, they cut a 10-inch (25 cm) sample of thermal insulation and debris protection. Pieces of shredded silver insulation floated like confetti as the two struck with a knife and long cutters. Astronauts collected samples of black epoxy sealant coming out of the hole, with only one tenth of an inch (2 mm) in diameter.
His space walk lasted almost eight hours. "It's time for you to go home," Mission Control insisted.
"It was very difficult … but we managed to do that," one of the astronauts said.
NASA said the pieces of free insulation pose no threat to the space station and would probably burn in the atmosphere in a day or two.
The capsule leak caused a concussion between the US and Russian space agencies after its discovery in late August. Russian space chief Dmitry Rogozin noted that the hole could have been drilled during fabrication – or in orbit. The commander of the space station at the time categorically denied any irregularity by himself or his crew.
Rogozin has since retracted his statement, blaming the media for twisting his words.
A Russian investigation is underway, according to Rogozin, and samples collected during the spacewalk will be returned to Earth on Soyuz. Space walk discoveries may lead to better repair techniques in the future, officials said.
Soyuz is scheduled to leave the laboratory in orbit on December 19, with Prokopyev, American Serena Aunon-Chancellor and German Alexander Gerst, the station's current captain. He transported them in June.
The aboard the 400-km-high outpost for the next six months will be an American, Russian and Canadian who arrived last week.
This was the 213rd spacewalk in 20 years at the space station.
The Associated Press's Department of Health and Science receives support from the Department of Scientific Education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is solely responsible for all content.