Alarming new traces of ‘drilling’ have been found on a Soyuz spacecraft docked with the International Space Station, Russian sources revealed today.
Moscow had already hinted at possible sabotage over damage found to the Soyuz MS-09 and a major whodunnit investigation is underway.
Officials have claimed the damage to the spacecraft appears to have been caused by a drill, and could have occurred on the ground pre-launch – or while in orbit.
Now a source close to the Russian space agency Roscosmos has admitted the damage was more extensive than previously thought.
‘Traces of drilling have been found not only inside the spacecraft’s living compartment,’ said the source.
The damage was also ‘on the screen of the anti-meteorite shield that covers the spacecraft from the outside and is installed 15 millimetres from the pressurised hull’.
Russian astronaut Sergei Prokopyev showed the original ‘drilled hole’ during a video released by the space agency Roscosmos
A drop in pressure due to an air leak was first detected on the $150 billion (£115 billion) orbital station overnight on August 30.
The cause was later discovered to be a two-millimetre hole in the orbital compartment of the manned Soyuz MS-09 space vehicle, which has been docked to the space station for two months.
Russian cosmonauts quickly plugged the hole and restored pressure, patching it up with several layers of epoxy resin – a glue-like substance.
After the hole was sealed cosmonauts carried out photo- and video surveillance of the hole using an endoscope.
A Russian official said last week that the hole appeared to have been punctured using a drill, and could have been caused deliberately by someone on the ground.
Now a source says the extent of the damage was greater than experts first feared.
Sergei Prokopyev (pictured) explained on a video released Monday by the Russian space agency Roscosmos how the crew last week located and sealed the tiny hole that created a slight loss of pressure
‘During the analysis of those images, traces of drilling were found on the anti-meteorite shield,’ said the source, as cited by Russian TASS news agency.
‘The top of the drill came through the pressure hull and hit the non-gas-tight outer shell.’
The latest disclosure comes as Russia was seeking to to calm speculation over the spacecraft damage.
Earlier this week space agency head Dmitry Rogozin held phone talks over the problem with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.
Both side agreed to ‘refrain from any premature conclusions and from presenting any explanations before the investigation is fully completed’.
Initially it was thought the damage could have been caused by a micrometeorite piercing the spacecraft.
This was ruled out and Rogozin – a close Vladimir Putin ally – raised the possibility of sabotage.
He asked: ‘What was it: a defect or some intentional acts? Where were these acts carried out? On the Earth or already in orbit?
‘Yet again, I am saying: we are not dismissing anything.’
The Soyuz MS-08 (pictured) left Earth on March 21 to transport three members of the Expedition 55 crew to the International Space Station
WHAT COULD HAVE CAUSED A HOLE IN THE ISS?
A tiny hole appeared in a Russian space capsule locked to the ISS on 29 August.
The ‘micro fracture’ believed to be around 2mm wide in the $150 billion (£115 billion) space station was discovered after astronauts noticed a drop in pressure.
European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst reportedly put his finger over the hole before crew patched it with tape.
The hole was confirmed repaired by Friday (31 August) after cabin pressure returned to normal.
It was initially believed to have been caused by a small meteorite and astronauts used tape to seal the leak after it caused a minor loss of pressure.
However, as the investigation went on it began to look like the hole was made from someone inside as opposed to outside, either back on Earth or in space, the Russian space agency claimed.
A leading theory from an unnamed source at Energia has said that the hole was made on the ground – potentially caused by ‘deliberate interference’ – with suggestions the person responsible may have already been identified.
Space agency chief Dmitry Rogozin said on September 4 the hole was caused by a drill and could have been made with a ‘wavering hand’.
Another anonymous source said the whole was drilled by a worker who hid their mistake with a seal instead of reporting it.
Previously Rogozin had said the hole in the side of the Soyuz ship used to ferry astronauts was most likely caused from outside by a tiny meteorite.
However, he says that theory has already been ruled out.
Nasa is yet to make a comment on whether it could have been caused from within.
Rogozin said it was ‘a matter of honour…to find whoever was guilty’ of causing the spacecraft damage – and ‘whether it was deliberate’.
The Russian media even speculated that a US astronaut might have sabotaged the spacecraft to delay a possible early return to earth due to alleged sickness of one member of the ISS crew.
But Russia now appears to be focusing on possible damages during the last stage of works or during its 90-day stay in the checkout stand ahead of transportation to the Baikonur launch site in Kazakhstan.
Roscosmos director Dmitry Rogozin said that the hole could have been drilled during manufacturing or while in orbit. He did not say if he suspected any of the current crew of three Americans, two Russians and a German aboard the station (pictured)
An industry source denied damage was possible before this – and it is thought unlikely to have been tampered with at Baikonur.
‘When Soyuz MS-09 just arrived to the final assembly workshop, it was photographed in detail,’ said the source.
‘No hole and no signs of drilling… were found.’
WHAT IS THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION?
The International Space Station (ISS) is a $100 billion (£80 billion) science and engineering laboratory that orbits 250 miles (400 km) above Earth.
It has been permanently staffed by rotating crews of astronauts and cosmonauts since November 2000.
The space station is currently home to two Russians, three Americans and one Japanese.
Research conducted aboard the ISS often requires one or more of the unusual conditions present in low Earth orbit, such as low-gravity or oxygen.
The International Space Station (file photo) is a $100 billion (£80 billion) science and engineering laboratory that orbits 250 miles (400 km) above Earth
ISS studies have investigated human research, space medicine, life sciences, physical sciences, astronomy and meteorology.
The US space agency, Nasa, spends about $3 billion (£2.4 billion) a year on the space station program, a level of funding that is endorsed by the Trump administration and Congress.
A U.S. House of Representatives committee that oversees Nasa has begun looking at whether to extend the program beyond 2024.
Alternatively the money could be used to speed up planned human space initiatives to the moon and Mars.