May 23, 2008

Soyuz Space Capsule May Face Another Shaky Landing

It could be another bumpy return to Earth for the crew of the International Space Station (ISS). A source inside the Russian space industry said their re-entry capsule has the same glitch that caused problems on the last two landings.

The Russian space agency refused to comment on any technical problems but said the Soyuz-TMA capsule was safe to carry crewmembers back from orbit in October.

The capsule is manned by two Russian cosmonauts Sergei Volkov and Oleg Kononenko and is also carrying U.S. space tourist Richard Garriott.

The last two re-entries of the Soyuz have been rough and concern has been raised about its safety. The capsule experienced so-called "ballistic" landings, where the entry into the atmosphere was steeper than usual.

In April, the capsule's last landing went off course by 260 miles and the crew of U.S. astronaut Peggy Whitson, South Korean Yi So-yeon and Russia's Yuri Malenchenko were subjected to twice the expected gravitational force.

According to an unidentified space industry source, faulty bolts were suspected of causing the last two "ballistic landings" and they are also fitted on the re-entry capsule now docked at the ISS.

The source said there are "explosive bolts which keep two modules attached to Soyuz capsules that are supposed to go off right before the entry into the Earth's atmosphere."

"For some reason this didn't work (on the previous two re-entries), although the unseparated modules fell off eventually. What is bad is that another Soyuz-TMA is believed to have this faulty device and is docked at the ISS for the return trip," he said.

There has been no comment by Roskosmos, the Russian space agency, over any technical faults with the Soyuz, but an inquiry has been launched into the problems with the last two landings"”its findings have not been made public.

"Even if there was a repeat of the "ballistic" landings, the crew would be safe due to the high reliability of the Soviet-era spacecraft," said Roskosmos spokesman Alexander Vorobyov.

"This Soyuz is indeed safe for return," said Vladimir Solovyov, flight director for the Russian section of the ISS.

Even in the event of a ballistic landing, these explosive bolts burn down due to high temperatures (on re-entry), and then the descent -- even if is not so gentle -- won't be life-threatening for the crew," Solovyov added.

NASA says they have full confidence in the Russian space program and that there is still time to fix any problems with the Soyuz before it was used next.

According to space sources, when the modules failed to separate from the capsule on the last two "ballistic" re-entries, the capsule was pulled off course and tilted so that its heat-resistant shield was not facing the direction of travel. As a result the capsule heated up and its antenna burned.

Yi So-yeon, South Korea's first astronaut, was scared for her life during the capsules last return to Earth. She has since suffered back problems and had to undergo treatment at home.

Posted on his blog (www.richardinspace.com), space tourist Garriott, a 46-year old video game designer, wrote that he was closely following "possible hardware concerns" with the Soyuz.

"I am confident every effort is being applied to diagnose this issue," he wrote. "This issue will be resolved and I have every confidence in the ship, the crew and the Soyuz team."

Image Courtesy NASA


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