An unmanned Soyuz capsule is on its way to the ISS to replace a damaged space shuttle at the International Space Station. The Soyuz MS-23 lifted off from Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Friday, live images from the US space agency Nasa showed. With around 430 kilograms of cargo for the crew on board, including medical devices and equipment for scientific experiments, the capsule is scheduled to dock with the ISS at 2:01 a.m. CET on Sunday.
The space shuttle had reached the intended orbit and successfully unfolded the solar panels, it was said shortly after the start.
Cause of the mission: MS-22 ferry has a leak
The unusual mission became necessary because the MS-22 ferry docked at the ISS has a leak - probably caused by a micrometeorite. The liquid leaking from the cooling system made the return of two Russians and an American seem risky. The plan is now that the cosmonauts Sergei Prokopjew and Dmitri Petelin as well as Nasa astronaut Frank Rubio, who came to the ISS with the MS-22 in September, are expected to return to Earth in the autumn with the MS-23 - instead of March, as was originally planned. In the meantime, the damaged MS-22 capsule could fly back from the ISS unmanned.
The USA and Russia have been working closely together on the space station around 400 kilometers above the earth for more than 20 years, but the relationship had gotten into a serious crisis because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The current launch took place exactly on the anniversary of the beginning of the war. According to experts, however, this has technical reasons.
Europe's former space chief Jan Wörner hopes for more cooperation in the future. "A bridge over troubled water - or, to say it with the musicians Simon and Garfunkel: "Bridge over Troubled Water", this song should be a symbol for space travel," said Wörner of the German Press Agency. Climate change and wars endanger humanity. "We need more cooperation to preserve our blue planet for humans."
Spaceman Ewald: "Problems on Earth are bigger than in space"
The German astronaut Reinhold Ewald did not want to speak of a "rescue mission". "The crew isn't stranded somewhere. Even if many systems fail, there are ways and means on the Soyuz to steer the capsule home." In a way, the problems on earth are bigger than in space. "It's a lot of work for Russian space travel. The Soyuz, which is being sent up unmanned, was intended for a crew. That's already a significant disruption to the order. Russia doesn't produce them in stock," said the 66-year-old.
Ewald, who flew to the Russian space station "Mir" in a Soyuz capsule in 1997 and did research for three weeks, pointed to the pragmatic ongoing cooperation between Nasa and Roscosmos despite the Ukraine war: "The situation is bad enough. That's it maybe a glimmer of hope that we're getting closer."
He does not believe that Russia will exit the ISS program any time soon. "Moscow just recently sent up a science module. I think Russia will use its investment in the station for as long as possible." Technically, the ISS is struggling with "expectable problems," said Ewald. "Material fatigue cannot be stopped that easily."
According to the state agency TASS, the scientific and technical council of the Russian space agency Roskosmos decided a few days ago to continue using the Russian segment of the ISS until 2028.
In addition to Prokopyev, Petelin and Rubio, Nicole Mann, Josh Cassada, Koichi Wakata and Anna Kikina - the so-called Crew 5 - are currently on the ISS. The "Crew 6" is also expected next week: the Americans Stephen Bowen and Warren Hoburg, the Russian Andrei Fedjajew and the Emirati Sultan al-Nijadi. A few days after their arrival with a "Crew Dragon" from Elon Musk's private US space company SpaceX, the "Crew-5" is to return to Earth.