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Empty Soyuz capsule will be sent to the space station to replace a damaged one

DWANE BROWN, HOST:

Several people aboard the International Space Station learned yesterday that their stay is being extended by several months after their spacecraft was damaged in orbit. The Russian space agency said it plans to launch an uncrewed Soyuz spacecraft next month. That capsule will replace the one that flew two cosmonauts and a NASA astronaut to the station last September. Brendan Byrne of member station WMFE in Orlando has more.

BRENDAN BYRNE, BYLINE: It's been four weeks since the cosmonauts and astronauts aboard the space station were stunned to look out the windows to see something leaking from a docked Soyuz spacecraft that flew three of them to the orbiting lab last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROB NAVIAS: We are still in concert with the Russian flight controllers outside of Moscow, evaluating a stream of particles that appears to be coming from the Soyuz MS-22.

BYRNE: That stream of particles turned out to be coolant. An investigation by the Russian space agency determined a meteoroid strike was to blame.

TERRY VIRTS: Just like if you're in a car and a rock pops up and hits your radiator fluid and it leaks out, you can drive the car for a little while, but you don't want to drive it for too long.

BYRNE: Retired NASA astronaut Terry Virts flew to the station in 2015 on a Soyuz capsule. He says the coolant is an important part of the vehicle.

VIRTS: In the same way, you can fly the Soyuz for a little while. But the computers and, most importantly, the people inside will start to overheat pretty quickly.

BYRNE: With no way to radiate heat, it would be an uncomfortable flight, with temperatures in the capsule expected around 100 degrees. And because of that, the leaky capsule isn't safe to transport crew back home in March as scheduled. Now it will return to Earth at some point empty. So Russia is sending a new Soyuz without a crew to the station next month.

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JOEL MONTALBANO: We're not calling it a rescue Soyuz.

BYRNE: NASA's Joel Montalbano says at no point was the crew in immediate danger. But capsules aren't just for transporting people to and from the station. They're lifeboats in case of an emergency, like a fire or chemical leak on the station. Astronauts can take refuge in the capsule. But should they need to evacuate the station altogether, Sergei Krikalev of the Russian space agency Roscosmos believes the Soyuz could still fly in an emergency.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SERGEI KRIKALEV: Soyuz is not good for nominal re-entry. But in case of emergency, with extra risk, we are going to use the Soyuz at this point.

BYRNE: For that reason, the agencies are working with SpaceX to possibly use its docked Dragon capsule should there be a need to make an escape before the new spacecraft arrives. Because of the Soyuz swap, the current crew could extend its stay to September for a full year on the ISS.

For NPR News, I'm Brendan Byrne in Orlando.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZMEYEV AND SCREEN JAZZMASTER'S "AIRMODE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.