Because of a leak in the Soyuz rocket, which is currently docked at the International Space Station ISS, the Russian space agency Roskosmos has decided to rescue several crew members.
Another Soyuz rocket will fly to the ISS on Feb. 20 to return two Russian cosmonauts and a US astronaut to Earth, Roscosmos said on Wednesday.
The spaceship with the leak should therefore fly back without a crew.
The leak was discovered on December 14 in the spacecraft docked with the ISS.
According to Roscosmos, the damage to the Soyuz MS-22 is due to the impact of a small meteorite, which caused a hole in the cooling system less than a millimeter in diameter.
Images from the US space agency Nasa showed in mid-December how large quantities of white particles – apparently the coolant – escaped from the spacecraft like snow.
The Russian space agency had the extent of the damage assessed by a commission.
The investigation showed that the problems were not caused by a technical defect.
This has been proven experimentally.
Damaged spaceship flies back without crew
Originally, the Russian cosmonauts Sergei Prokopjew and Dmitri Petelin and their US colleague Frank Rubio wanted to fly back to Earth with the MS-22.
Now the astronauts who have been stationed on the ISS since September are to be picked up by the MS-23 instead.
According to Roskosmos, the Soyuz rocket completed the outward flight to the ISS unmanned on February 20, it only takes material on board.
In the case of the MS-22, the return flight to earth is to be carried out without a crew because of its damage.
The rescue operation upsets the schedule of the Russian space agency.
Originally, the MS-23 was not supposed to fly to the ISS until March 16, taking the two Russians Oleg Kononenko and Nikolai Tschub and their US colleague Loral O'Haradrei with them.
When exactly the spaceship is supposed to bring Prokopjew, Petelin and Rubio back to earth was not announced.
All it said was that their mission would be "extended".
The three astronauts were originally supposed to return home in March.
There are currently seven crew members on the ISS.
A German astronaut is not among them.
Four places for seven astronauts
Roskosmos and Nasa had initially assured that the leak in the Soyuz rocket posed no danger to the ISS crew.
However, since the MS-22 is defective, only one spaceship with only four seats is available for the currently seven crew members of the space station.
In the event of an emergency that makes it necessary to evacuate the ISS, the astronauts may have to resort to the spacecraft with the leak.
"In exceptionally critical situations on the ISS, there will be a separate decision by the State Commission on the possibility of using the Soyuz MS-22 to rescue the crew," Roskosmos said.
Russian space expert Vitaly Egorov praised the plans of the Russian space agency.
"This is an optimal solution for the safety of people and for minimizing damage to the space program," he wrote on the online network Facebook.
Since the start of the Russian offensive in Ukraine in February last year, space has been one of the few areas where Russia and the US are still cooperating.
The ISS has been in operation since 1998.