A Daring Search for Answers in Soyuz Mystery

If you happened to tune into NASA TV on December 11th, you’d have been treated to a sight perhaps best described as “unprecedented”: Russian cosmonauts roughly cutting away the thermal insulation of a docked Soyuz spacecraft with a knife and makeshift pair of shears. Working in a cloud of material ripped loose during the highly unusual procedure, cosmonauts Oleg Kononenko and Sergey Prokopyev were effectively carving out their own unique place in space history. Their mission was to investigate the external side of the suspicious hole in the Soyuz MS-09 capsule which caused a loss of air pressure on the International Space Station earlier in the year.

That astronauts don’t generally climb out the hatch and use a knife to hack away at the outside of their spacecraft probably goes without saying. Such an event has never happened before, and while nobody can predict the future, odds are it’s not something we’re likely to see again. Keep in mind that this wasn’t some test capsule or a derelict, but a vehicle slated to return three human occupants to Earth in a matter of days. Cutting open a spacecraft in which human lives will shortly be entrusted is not a risk taken likely, and shows how truly desperate the Russian space agency Roscosmos is to find out just who or what put a hole in the side of one of their spacecraft.

Close inspection from the inside of the spacecraft confirmed the hole wasn’t made by an impact with a micrometeorite or tiny piece of space junk as was originally assumed. It appears to have been made with a drill, which really only allows for two possible scenarios: intentional sabotage or a mistake and subsequent cover-up. In either event, a truly heinous crime has been committed and those responsible must be found. As luck would have it the slow leak of air pressure was detected early and the hole was patched before any damage was done, but what if it hadn’t?

Non-Essential Hardware

Even if you don’t consider yourself an armchair astronaut, it’s pretty clear that a spacecraft’s external insulation and shielding isn’t designed to be removed while in space, much less hacked at with improvised tools by a couple of spacewalking comrades. As a general rule, if the designer thought it was important enough to protect a part of the vehicle with multiple levels of thermal and micrometeorite protection, it’s probably not a great idea to take it off while the craft is still in operation.

That being said, the area being investigated by Kononenko and Prokopyev is on one of the few components of the Soyuz spacecraft which isn’t necessary for the craft to return to Earth. In fact, it’s actually a deterrent to the capsule’s return: if it doesn’t get jettisoned the Soyuz capsule won’t be able to slow down to safe landing speed since the added weight would exceed the capability of the main parachutes.

The hole is located in the most forward section of the craft, known as the “Orbital Module”, which houses ancillary systems such as the docking equipment and crew lavatory. A mission which somehow lost access to the Orbital Module would be potentially unpleasant and likely deemed a failure, but the crew wouldn’t be in immediate danger and could still return to Earth which is ultimately the most important thing. On ascent it’s used as a storage area for any payload being brought to the International Space Station, but once the craft has undocked from the Station it’s essentially dead weight.

During the Mir missions in the late 1980’s, the Orbital Module was actually jettisoned much earlier to reduce the vehicle’s mass and therefore the amount of propellant required to perform the retry burn. But on the Soyuz TM-5 mission this lead to a troubling situation in which the vehicle was unable to deorbit when planned but had already jettisoned the Orbital Module. While the crew eventually landed safely, the 24 hour period they spent without a lavatory or a way to dock with the Mir station was an unpleasant experience to say the least. Since then, the Orbital Module is not jettisoned from the Soyuz until the deorbit burn has already been performed and the vehicle is past the point of no return.

A Difficult Commute

Ultimately the danger posed to the Soyuz crew by opening up the outer skin of the Orbital Module was deemed minimal, since they wouldn’t be keeping it around for long anyway. In light of the potential gains, namely collecting evidence which may allow Roscosmos to determine how or when the hole in the craft was made, it was a calculated risk worth taking. But deciding to go ahead with the impromptu operation was the easy part, somebody still had to climb out there and do it.

Any time an astronaut leaves the relatively safe confines of their craft and goes out the hatch, there’s an element of risk. But in this case the problem was compounded by the fact that the Soyuz was never meant to be serviced from the outside. Unlike on the Space Station itself, there’s no convenient hand holds or tie off points for the astronauts to use. That meant the only way to reach the Orbital Module was to use an extendable boom. When attached to the end, the crew member can be moved into position by a colleague and can work in an area that doesn’t have any tie off points.

Interestingly, such a maneuver is not without precedent. A similar method was used in 2005 when astronaut Steve Robinson was sent out to repair the heat shield of Space Shuttle Discovery. As the bottom of the Shuttle was perfectly smooth, he had to be moved into position on the end of the Shuttle’s robotic arm. Though in this case the operation was made quite a bit easier by the fact that the Soyuz being worked on was securely docked to the station, and not free floating as in the case of Discovery.

Investigation Continues

While they had some initial difficulty finding the tiny 2 mm diameter hole, Kononenko and Prokopyev expanded their search area a bit and were eventually able to take close-up photographs of the mysterious wound and even collect some samples which will be returned to Roscomos for analysis. As this is an active investigation with potentially criminal implications, little has been said about what the men found during their examination. But the fact that the external insulation and shielding of the Soyuz was intact is more proof that the hole was not put there by any external means.

As of this writing, Soyuz MS-09 has made a successful landing in the steppes of Kazakhstan; with crew members Serena Auñón-Chancellor, Alexander Gerst, and Sergey Prokopyev himself all in good health after 197 days in space. The safe return of the multinational crew is what’s ultimately most important, but the questions about what happened to MS-09 still need answers. A space capsule apparently damaged by human hands and the failure of the MS-10 booster due to an improperly installed sensor have put the beleaguered Russian space industry in an exceptionally poor light, just months before SpaceX and Boeing are set to test their crewed spacecraft. Unless the blatant issues in production and quality assurance can be sorted out, the iconic Soyuz spacecraft may soon find itself pushed to the wayside over 50 years after its first flight.

67 thoughts on “A Daring Search for Answers in Soyuz Mystery

  1. If television dramas are any indication, quality control in many foreign countries is not “Job One”.
    Even here, decisions are often made to ensure higher payout to the shareholders/management types.

    1. While that is correct, punching an additional hole somewhere where it shouldn’t be and not telling anyone is a proper dick move. Plus, in light of the SpaceX and Boeing thing, having poor QC would be absolutely counterproductive.

        1. Work culture in Russia tends to be that the last person to touch the thing is responsible, so everyone’s afraid to point out issues and hope to pass them on to the next shift. If there’s a problem, you hide it, because management may use any excuse to fire you and replace you with someone more to their liking. Meanwhile, if you’re some bigger manager’s friend’s cousin, or the local mafia boss wants so, you may be “hired” to loiter around kicking old soup cans and pretending to work.

          Friend of mine went to a factory over there to diagnose issues in a production line and observed that the sandblasting robot hoses were never replaced – because the first time the person who replaced the hose according to the maintenance schedule was blamed for wasting materials, and the next person who didn’t replace the hose when it was due was blamed for the eventual breakdown, so the workers claimed that the robot was broken and the company who sold the robot got called repeatedly to diagnose the issue.

  2. Glad they are safe! I watched it live and it was so bizarre…you could clearly hear the Russian flight control communicating with the crew, saying that a booster had failed, while the NASA TV commentator continued talking over it saying everything was nominal.

  3. A few notes about the inspection. I believe their primary goal in cutting out the protective blanket was to examine the extent of the damage and the effectiveness of the repair afterwards, not to identify the culprit. The debris they left is initially in the same orbit with ISS, have a very different ballistic coefficient, and relatively very soft, so it doesn’t pose any danger. Also, that module is ejected before reentry, so a makeshift repair on the blanket is sufficient for its role. Of course even if the blanket was part of reentry module, it wouldn’t provide any protection in its prime form either. Not saying Russian quality control is the best, but I doubt NASA was not involved in the decision to do the inspection.

    1. According to the cosmonaut who collected the samples, they are already being used in the investigation. Though admittedly I’m not sure how.

      https://www.cbsnews.com/news/international-space-station-soyuz-capsule-mysterious-hole-drilled-from-inside-russian-law-enforcement-probe/

      There’s really no other reason for them to have collected samples or even check the repair, the module was going to burn up anyway and wasn’t required for the safe return of crew.

      1. I’m sure they want to find the person(s) responsible, and make sure they aren’t on the crew, preparing the next flight… Pretty sure they use the same people, so could expect the same quality

          1. no, he’s not that far off the truth…although the amount metal left behind by the drill will be miniscule, as after all that is the whole reason we go through the pain of making them out of tool steel and heat treating them…

            They are probably more interested in the residues of whatever was sealing the hole before it failed, as the Soyuz passed !several! pressure tests on the ground – the hole was still sealed and nothing leaked. It let go after being exposed to outer space for some time…

          2. I think they will enhance a photo of the hole and compare the scratch marks with all the drills in Russia. They’ll probably have to reprogram the main computer to do so.

  4. It’s inconceivable that a loss of air pressure, no matter how minor, would have gone unobserved in a space vehicle or space station. It’s something they are always prepared to fight.

    It’s difficult to believe that this is accidental damage, from the photograph. The drill was clearly skated around the area before finding a bite. This is not a way that the drill would have been applied in normal construction.

    You can also see from the EVA video and translation that the Russian space crew are seriously agitated about this. On their EVA, Russian ground controllers repeatedly counsel them to slow down and be careful, and not to hack into the spacecraft that way, and they go on disregarding ground commands.

    Although Russia has walked back its accusations that this was a deliberate act by the American space crew, there seems to be some bad stuff going on here.

    1. “Although Russia has walked back its accusations that this was a deliberate act by the American space crew, there seems to be some bad stuff going on here.”

      All effectively in the same boat.

    2. Right, but sir, if the loss of air pressure had gone unobserved we would not now be talking about it. We know that it was, in fact, observed. And that they were indeed prepared to fight it.

      It isn’t clear where you go from “not… normal construction” to your conclusion that it isn’t accidental. If it was accidental, wouldn’t that already be different than normal? So if it was accidental, or not accidental, it would look different than normal. That shouldn’t suggest to you that it goes one way or the other, except that accidents are more common than sabotage.

      Maybe ignoring the ground crew is normal for them? Maybe they have higher rank than their ground crew? Are the Russians well known for following orders precisely? Or is their reputation a bit more “can-do” than that?

      And if you thought it was sabotage in-flight, why blame the Americans? Wouldn’t you need some actual positive evidence for that? It seems a bit suspect to just immediately blame whoever is from a different country than you when you suspect a crime may have been committed.

      Maybe they should spring for a Nanny Cam in their module, and they won’t have to worry about if Uncle Sam was poking around under their insulation.

        1. Just saw that one on Mega Disasters, seems some kind of insulation around the electrical was flammable. So after ignoring a memo says don’t use an open flame, they did and it got into the electrical chases. And then they proceeded to really borke the system.

    1. One of the tools they carry is an ultrasonic leak detector. Leaks whistle a bit, and if you listen far enough up into the ultrasonic then you don’t get the (literally) deafening roar of all the fans on board (free convection doesn’t work in microacceleration). Astronauts have come back with significant hearing loss from all the fans.

      1. When I used ultrasonic leak detectors, this is not how they worked. Ultrasonics can detect exquisitely small changes in pressure, such as a pinhole leak. The theory is not that different from how lasers are used to detect minute changes in position or velocity.

        1. They probably worked the same way, but you used words specific to the training that accompanied your device, and the other person used casual English.

          For example, one intended for HVAC use advertises “hear a 5 psi leak up to 30 ft away” and “allow you to hear the sound of a tiny leak clearly and distinguish it from other noises.”

    2. Ha, no. A candle doesn’t work the same in space, and besides they’d never let you bring one onboard, That’s a disaster waiting to happen, you don’t go starting open flames on a spacecraft. Massively dangerous for several reasons.

      I think there’s an ultrasound gadget that can even estimate the size of the breach from its frequency, and I think they can seal up the modules and monitor their respective pressures pretty precisely to get an idea of which module is faulty.

        1. They were just called candles – “vika”, but they are a cartrige based system that uses lithium perchlorate as the primary means of oxygen generation.
          They were also used on the Mir. They (or one of them to be specific) are also responsible for the serious fire inicident aboard Mir – the insides of the “candle” were (probably) contaminated with a piece of glove, which under the (very) oxygen rich atmosphere turned into a large pyrotechnic fountain. Needles to say that you do not want a 1-meter flame blazing on the walls of your aluminium spacecraft :D

          Funny enough that even after all that, a modified (safer) version is used on the ISS whenever the Elektron system is not up to the job. Solid-fuel oxygen generator (SFOG) or the russian acromim – TGK.

          1. It is also called “candle” as it burns to produce the oxygen. A pyrotechnic mixture with a kind of fuel-limited burn where the heat releases more oxygen from the oxidizer than the reaction consumes for the heat.

    1. “I bet it was Elon Musk!”
      … or the dude he sent up in that Roadster, after all, why would he need a Z1 pressure suit and a seatbelt if he was just a dummy.. quick, get the Russians on the line, I think we found our culprit.

  5. Looking at the hole, it is through double thickness of metal. Difficult to tell, but there is probably a weld along the line tangent to the fingertip. I expect this is a lap joint, welded inside and outside. In that case, the hole seems to be very nearly exactly in the center of the heat affected zones.
    The driller probably knew that was a strong point. Either that, or it was easily accessed. There is a flange to the right that has dings in the paint that look like a drill chuck rubbed against it. The area around the hole shows clear signs of a drill bit walking around from too little force applied. Also, there are indications around in the hole that clearly resulted from stalling the drill bit. Is the capsule material aluminum or titanium in that area? There may be three brief false drilling starts in the corner of the flange. One would expect this would be the logical place to drill if reaching in from through the hatch. The hatch/latch/frame itself would logically be sufficient to suitably brace a person drilling in zero G.

    We know one thing: the hole was likely been drilled after the interior of the capsule shell was painted. There is no paint overspray on the visible side of the hole and it would appear the drill bit walked around from at least three starts, scratching the paint and the drill chuck scuffs on the flange.

    I have no idea where the hole is in relation to the hatch, but I would expect it to be near the hatch (toward the top of the capsule when erected on the launch pad), looking at the curvature and the double (triple?) band of metallic structure and the orientation of the flange. A person in microgravity could have a great deal of difficulty getting the hole started unless there were adequate footholds and off-hand hold. However, it would also be difficult for somebody standing on the launch seats drilling above their head (after stack is assembled, but before launch) to apply sufficient force to prevent drill tip walking. How many people could have had access to the capsule after the stack was erected. In what orientation is the capsule when the stack is assembled? Who could have had access to the assembly area? In what orientation is the capsule stored in before assembly? Was the hole crudely patched in some manner? If so, what material was used for the patch? Is there any evidence a solvent or carrier was used in the presumably putty-like material?

    You know, this drill hole and improvised patch sounds a lot like a plot device in a Ben Bova novel.

      1. It has already been done. …. A long time ago in a galaxy far far away.

        The description says the chamber was also functions as a rest-room in specific contexts. Perhaps the hole comes from an aborted attempt to mount a toilet paper roll holder.

      1. > not sure that the Sojuz pressure vessel is arc welded, as the Амг6 alloy it’s made out of would probably be a pain to arc weld…

        Interesting. How are the components bonded?

  6. What did they use to plug the hole? If it was an assembly line “oops” I’d expect to see a glob of kneaded epoxy putty on it. Someone accidentally poking a hole in the wrong spot could mash some over and through the hole and it’d be fine.

    If it was accidental it makes me wonder about the training of Roscosmos assembly people. Are they told to just follow some instructions or do they know the intricate details of what they’re putting together? Could be as simple as a drill slip punching through and the driller not knowing he or she had just poked a fresh vacuum vent into the ship.

    1. That’s one of the biggest questions. The leak didn’t start until some time after the Soyuz docked, and the capsule passed the pre-launch pressure checks. This would seem to indicate the hole was plugged with something which eventually worked its way loose.

      1. That is of course assuming that the vessel was properly pressure tested, and/or that the hole wasn’t deliberately planted there to make later accusations about sabotage saying “It wasn’t there when we launched it!”

    2. I think the MS-10 incident was cased by someone installing an accelerometer backwards? Even though it was keyed specifically so it cant be and was bent to fit. Sounds like they have some major QC issues there.

        1. You seem to both be thinking of the failed Proton-M launch in July 2013, which crashed due to the accelerometers being installed upside down.

          The MS-10 failed because the switch actuator pin on one of the the boosters got bent during (forceful) installation. And yes, there is currently an ongoing concern with quality control. Things are still organised very much like they were in the Soviet days, but without the threat of Siberian gulags it seems some people have stopped giving a shit.

  7. Am I the only one who sees a small hole drilled on an angle (based on photo orientation,tilted almost nearly horizontal rt)
    three rows of pecker tracks on tangents to said hole, on same face of panel.
    Now the photo is grainy but there seems to be three more damage spots or detritus on the area where the panel makes a bend away from the camera.
    Next thing is that hole(?) that’s as wide as the finger tip.
    That one lookes to be cut with a left hand helix. Note the direction in which the burr ramps out. Notice the break in the burr or is a coating that flaked back and just looks like a burr?
    Then there are two more spots further back and to right of large spot.
    What are they? More voids or just debris?
    A link to more and/or better images would be nice.

    Granted that the results are the same, But I really would prefer/hope to learn of this being negligence or incompetence, rather than deliberate.

    Lastly. I wish I could be out there to ride along for a few days.
    Can’t imagine what a sight it is, to see the cosmos live.

      1. Ha! Just old shop vernacular for surface damage caused by various process oopsies.
        But yet, attending a few bankruptcy auctions could leave one wondering about that perv factor…

  8. “… the beleaguered Russian space industry in an exceptionally poor light, just months before SpaceX and Boeing are set to test their crewed spacecraft. ”

    What an incredible coincidence this “incident” happened … just in time …

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