Back in space for the Soyuz rocket

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Astronaut flights to the International Space Station had become almost routine, with four take-offs per year since 2012, before a Soyuz rocket showed a failure that forced its crew back to Earth in emergency, parachute, October 11, 2018. The Russian Space Agency suspended the flights while waiting to understand what had happened, and the occupants of the ISS remained alone a little longer than expected. But this Monday morning, nearly two months after the accident, Soyouz found the path of space, carrying two astronauts and a cosmonaut in orbit without hindrance.

What happened on October 11th?

We saw immediately that the takeoff was not going as planned: while the Soyuz rocket was already high in the sky, two minutes after leaving the ground, its four propellers did not detach "cleanly". The crew vessel, consisting of Russian astronaut Alexey Ovchinin and American Nick Hague, was then ejected from the rest of the rocket. Without propulsion, the astronauts could no longer hope to reach the orbit of the space station, 400 km above sea level. The Soyuz capsule fell back to Earth in ballistic mode, that is to say as a projectile controlled only by gravity, at a steeper angle than a normal landing. A parachute was deployed, and the astronauts escaped unscathed, though shaken.

To read :Return to Earth of two astronauts after a rocket failure

An investigation was immediately opened to find the cause of the incident and the Russian Space Agency, Roscosmos, suspended the launches pending the conclusions. They arrived on the 1st November: One piece (a contact sensor) was bent during the installation of the lateral thrusters on the rocket, in Baikonur. Because of this deformed part, the lid of the liquid oxygen reservoir has not opened on one of these conical thrusters. Its valve still closed, the tank was therefore unable to expel the pressurized gas that would have moved away from the rocket.

Installation of a thruster on a Soyuz rocket in 2013, at the Kourou Space Center (Guyana). The valve cover is located under the red disk (a temporary protection hood) to the very left of the thruster.Installation of a thruster on a Soyuz rocket in 2013, at the Guyanese Space Center in Kourou. The valve cover is located under the red disk (a temporary protection hood) to the very left of the thruster. (Photo Esa, CNES, Arianespace, CSG)

Instead of departing sharply from the Soyuz as planned, the thruster hit the body of the rocket and damaged it, as seen on the launch video. The manned ship automatically ejected from the rocket, caught in a dangerous whirlpool.

New rules and verification procedures have been put in place to ensure that such a problem does not reoccur in future launches, and the Soyuz launch schedule has been resumed.

Are the astronauts going back to the ISS?

The crew that took off this Monday is not the same as the one that landed on Earth in October. Today, the American Anne McClain, the Canadian David Saint-Jacques and the Russian Oleg Kononenko have settled in the uncomfortable seats of the Soyuz spacecraft. They took off without a hitch and went into orbit nine minutes later, finding that they had left earthly gravity when the little plush raccoon hanging from the ceiling began to float (all the astronauts take a mascot with him). as a witness of weightlessness).

Two astronauts in the Soyuz capsule before takeoff of MS-11 flight to the space station, December 3, 2018.Two astronauts in the Soyuz capsule before MS-11 takes off to the space station, December 3, 2018. (Photo Roscosmos)

They will spend six and a half months in the station and will only cohabit briefly with the crew already in place, which should return December 13. The schedule before this day is loaded: it is necessary in particular to organize an exit in space to inspect the hull of the Soyuz MS-09 vessel currently parked on the space station, which suffered from an air leak this summer. . McClain, Saint-Jacques and Kononenko will then remain three in the ISS to manage its maintenance and carry out their scientific experiments, before welcoming the next generation at the end of February 2019. They will be joined by Alexei Ovchinin and Nick Hague, the two astronauts fell back on the floor on October 11, accompanied by the American Christina Koch.

Camille Gévaudan

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