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Russian space officials try to blame NASA astronaut for Soyuz air leak in 2018: report – Space.com

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A closeup image of the suspected drill hole that astronauts discovered in the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft in 2018. (Image credit: NASA)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA’s head of human spaceflight says the agency stands behind its astronauts following claims that a U.S. crewmember at the International Space Station sabotaged a Russian Soyuz spacecraft in 2018, causing an air leak at the orbiting laboratory. 

On Friday afternoon (Aug. 13), during a media teleconference about recent delays with Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, NASA’s human spaceflight chief Kathy Lueders told reporters that the personal attacks against NASA astronaut and Expedition 56 flight engineer Serena Auñón-Chancellor were baseless. 

“Serena is an extremely well-respected crew member who has served her country and made invaluable contributions to the agency,” Lueders told reporters. “And I stand behind Serena — we stand behind Serena and her professional conduct and I did not find this accusation credible.”

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Related: Space Station commander: It’s ‘absolutely a shame’ to suggest astronauts caused air leak

Lueders expressed those same sentiments on Twitter Friday afternoon, with NASA’s administrator, Senator Bill Nelson agreeing.: 

“I wholeheartedly agree with Kathy’s statement,” Nelson tweeted. “I fully support Serena and I will always stand behind our astronauts.”

Russian accusations

NASA leadership’s statements on Friday follow on the heels of accusations from an unnamed “high-ranking” official with Russia’s space agency made in the Russian news agency TASS. The agency claims that in 2018, Auñón-Chancellor had an emotional breakdown in space and then damaged a Russian Soyuz spacecraft that was docked at the station so that she could return to Earth early.

The article, published on Thursday (Aug. 12), responds to criticism from U.S. media in regards to the near-disastrous incident involving Russia’s Nauka science module and the International Space Station (ISS) earlier this month.

Related: Space station situation with Russia’s Nauka module misfire was more serious than stated

NASA astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor speaks at a bipartisan Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues event on NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration program, at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, in September 2019.  (Image credit: Aubrey Gemignani/NASA)

In the TASS article, Russian journalist Mikhail Kotov interviews an anonymous official at Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos

The article is particularly troublesome because it not only names Auñón-Chancellor — the only female astronaut on station at the time — specifically, but it also reveals a medical condition she suffered on-orbit. (Typically NASA keeps all astronaut medical records and conditions private.) 

Auñón-Chancellor was treated upon her return to Earth for a deep vein thrombosis, also known as a blood clot, in the jugular vein of her neck. But Kotov implies that dealing with such a condition in space could spur her to want to leave the ISS prematurely, and therefore sabotage the spacecraft that brought her to the orbital outpost in an effort to return home ahead of schedule. 

Leaky Soyuz

On Aug. 29, 2018, ISS controllers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston noticed a slight pressure drop aboard the orbiting outpost. They notified the crew the next day, and the crew was able to trace the leak to a small hole in Russia’s Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft, which had docked to the space station in June with Auñón-Chancellor, European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst and Russian cosmonaut Sergey Prokopyev.

Prokopyev, the commander of the Soyuz at the time, solved the problem by patching the 2-millimeter (0.08 inches) hole using epoxy and gauze. NASA officials stressed that the crew was never in any danger. 

Russian space officials decided to investigate the leak, determined to find out its cause. Shortly thereafter, Dmitry Rogozin — the head of Roscosmos — announced that the breach in the Soyuz wall was a drill hole. And according to Rogozin, the person who made the hole apparently had “a faltering hand,” citing nearby scuff marks that likely resulted when the drill slipped.

Russian officials went one step further insinuating that the unsteady hand was likely due to the culprit drilling in microgravity, meaning one of the crew was to blame — not the Russian engineers involved in the assembly and testing of the Soyuz spacecraft before launch down on Earth. 

Space Station astronauts repaired a minor leak in the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft (left) on Aug. 30, 2018. A 2-millimeter hole in the orbital module, shown here, caused a slight pressure drop inside the orbiting laboratory. (Image credit: NASA/Space.com)

NASA officials knew the precise locations of the U.S. astronauts before the leak occurred and at the moment it began, thanks to space station surveillance. The video footage indicated that none of the U.S. astronauts on the station were near the Russian segment where the Soyuz vehicle was docked. But the Russians didn’t buy it. They were convinced that one of the crew sabotaged the Soyuz. 

The recent TASS article takes those claims one step further and insists that NASA video of the ISS could have been tampered with and that Russian officials were denied the chance to examine Russian tools and administer polygraphs, or lie detector tests, to the astronauts. 

But the TASS article seems to dismiss the most likely cause of the hole: human error on the ground. The problem most likely happened on Earth, before launch. This was something that Roscosmos was looking into but the agency has never definitively disclosed the results. 

Most likely a technician accidentally damaged the Soyuz spacecraft and then tried to cover up the error with a makeshift patch. That patch could have then become dislodged during flight or its time on-orbit after repeated exposure to extreme temperature differences as the station orbits the Earth.

Looking ahead

Related stories

Relations between the two space agencies have grown more strained over recent years, but NASA leadership is hopeful for a continued orbital partnership. 

Prior to the launch attempt of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft on July 30, Nelson told Space.com that he applauded the long-standing relationship between the two agencies. “Terrestrially, we have enormous tensions with Russia, but in space we have cooperation.” 

Nelson also said that he expects Russia will continue to work with NASA to maintain the ISS and that he hopes to announce sometime soon that a cosmonaut will fly on an upcoming SpaceX Crew Dragon flight, something the agency has been trying to arrange for quite some time. 

Perhaps cosmonauts will make their U.S. commercial spaceflight debut with the SpaceX Crew-4 mission, currently slated to launch in2022, Nelson has said, but nothing is confirmed yet. 

Follow Amy Thompson on Twitter @astrogingersnap. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.

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An SUV-sized asteroid zoom by Earth in close shave flyby in this time-lapse video

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Asteroid 2023 BU zipped past Earth Thursday night (Jan. 26) to the delight of amateur astronomers worldwide. For skywatchers without access to a telescope or those who had their view hampered by bad weather, luckily the Italy-based Virtual Telescope Project was there to observe the event and livestream the whole thing for free.

The Virtual Telescope is a robotic telescope operated by Italian amateur astronomer Gianluca Masi near Rome, Italy. As 2023 BU hurtled toward Earth, the telescope was able to track the rock through a gap in the clouds when it was about 13,670 miles (22,000 kilometers) from the closest point on Earth’s surface (about the altitude of the GPS navigation satellite constellation) and 22,990 miles (37,000 km) from the Virtual Telescope.

Masi, who shared an hour-long webcast of the observations on the Virtual Telescope website, wasn’t able to capture the closest approach as clouds rolled in, however. Nonetheless, the Virtual Telescope Project was able to get a good look at the car-sized rock, seen in time-lapse above.

 

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The Italy-based Virtual Telescope captured asteroid 2023 BU shortly before its closest approach to Earth. (Image credit: The Virtual Telescope Project)

The rock, discovered less than a week ago on Saturday (Jan. 21), passed above the southern tip of South America at 7:27 p.m. EST on Thursday Jan. 26 (0027 GMT on Jan. 27), at a distance of only 2,240 miles (3,600 km) at its closest point to Earth’s surface.

This close approach makes 2023 BU the fourth nearest asteroid ever observed from Earth, with the exception of five space rocks that were detected before diving into Earth’s atmosphere.

Only 11.5 to 28 feet wide (3.5 to 8.5 meters), 2023 BU posed no danger to the planet. If the trajectories of the two bodies had intersected, the asteroid would mostly have burned up in the atmosphere with only small fragments possibly falling to the ground as meteorites.

In the videos and images shared by Masi, the asteroid is seen as a small bright dot in the center of the frame, while the longer, brighter lines are the surrounding stars. In reality, of course, it was the asteroid that was moving with respect to Earth, traveling at a speed of 21,000 mph (33,800 km/h) with respect to Earth. As Masi’s computerized telescope tracked its positionthe rock appeared stationary in the images while rendering the stars as these moving streaks.

Related stories:

The gravitational kick that 2023 BU received during its encounter with Earth will alter the shape of its orbit around the sun. Previously, the space rock followed a rather circular orbit, completing one lap around the sun in 359 days. From now on, BU 2023 will travel through the inner solar system on a more elliptical path, venturing half way toward Mars at the farthest point of its orbit. This alteration will add 66 days to BU 2023’s orbital period.

The asteroid was discovered by famed Crimea-based astronomer and astrophotographer Gennadiy Borisov, the same man who in 2018 found the first interstellar comet, which now bears his name, Borisov.

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Green comet zooming our way, last visited 50,000 years ago

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This photo provided by Dan Bartlett shows comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) on Dec. 19, 2022. It last visited during Neanderthal times, according to NASA. It is expected to come within 26 million miles (42 million kilometers) of Earth on Feb. 1, 2023, before speeding away again, unlikely to return for millions of years. Credit: Dan Bartlett via AP

A comet is streaking back our way after 50,000 years.

The dirty snowball last visited during Neanderthal times, according to NASA. It will come within 26 million miles (42 million kilometers) of Earth Wednesday before speeding away again, unlikely to return for millions of years.

So do look up, contrary to the title of the killer- movie “Don’t Look Up.”

Discovered less than a year ago, this harmless green comet already is visible in the northern night sky with binoculars and small telescopes, and possibly the naked eye in the darkest corners of the Northern Hemisphere. It’s expected to brighten as it draws closer and rises higher over the horizon through the end of January, best seen in the predawn hours. By Feb. 10, it will be near Mars, a good landmark.

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Skygazers in the Southern Hemisphere will have to wait until next month for a glimpse.

While plenty of comets have graced the sky over the past year, “this one seems probably a little bit bigger and therefore a little bit brighter and it’s coming a little bit closer to the Earth’s orbit,” said NASA’s comet and asteroid-tracking guru, Paul Chodas.

Green from all the carbon in the gas cloud, or coma, surrounding the nucleus, this long-period comet was discovered last March by astronomers using the Zwicky Transient Facility, a wide field camera at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory. That explains its official, cumbersome name: comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF).

On Wednesday, it will hurtle between the orbits of Earth and Mars at a relative speed of 128,500 mph (207,000 kilometers). Its nucleus is thought to be about a mile (1.6 kilometers) across, with its tails extending millions of miles (kilometers).

The comet isn’t expected to be nearly as bright as Neowise in 2020, or Hale-Bopp and Hyakutake in the mid to late 1990s.

Green comet zooming our way, last visited 50,000 years ago
This photo provided by Dan Bartlett shows comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) on Dec. 19, 2022. It last visited during Neanderthal times, according to NASA. It is expected to come within 26 million miles (42 million kilometers) of Earth on Feb. 1, 2023, before speeding away again, unlikely to return for millions of years. Credit: Dan Bartlett via AP

But “it will be bright by virtue of its close Earth passage … which allows scientists to do more experiments and the public to be able to see a beautiful comet,” University of Hawaii astronomer Karen Meech said in an email.

Scientists are confident in their orbital calculations putting the comet’s last swing through the ‘s planetary neighborhood at 50,000 years ago. But they don’t know how close it came to Earth or whether it was even visible to the Neanderthals, said Chodas, director of the Center for Near Earth Object Studies at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

When it returns, though, is tougher to judge.

Every time the comet skirts the sun and planets, their gravitational tugs alter the iceball’s path ever so slightly, leading to major course changes over time. Another wild card: jets of dust and gas streaming off the comet as it heats up near the sun.

“We don’t really know exactly how much they are pushing this comet around,” Chodas said.

The comet—a time capsule from the emerging solar system 4.5 billion years ago—came from what’s known as the Oort Cloud well beyond Pluto. This deep-freeze haven for comets is believed to stretch more than one-quarter of the way to the next star.

While comet ZTF originated in our solar system, we can’t be sure it will stay there, Chodas said. If it gets booted out of the solar system, it will never return, he added.

Don’t fret if you miss it.

“In the comet business, you just wait for the next one because there are dozens of these,” Chodas said. “And the next one might be bigger, might be brighter, might be closer.”

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University of Guelph students are in the race to grow food in space

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Growing food in space is a complex challenge, but students at the University of Guelph have a pretty good idea of how to go about it.

The team, Canada GOOSE — which stands for Growth Options for Outer Space Environments — is among five teams across Canada, including the University of Waterloo, competing in the multi-year competition from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) known as the Deep Space Food Challenge.

The team is currently on the second phase of the competition and hosted representatives from CSA on Thursday to showcase their idea.

The teams have been instructed to develop new technologies that would be able to produce food in space, but that could also be used for production here on Earth.

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The Canada GOOSE team uses a hydroponic-like, high-density system to produce several kinds of fruits, vegetables and mushrooms.

Ajwal Dsouza is a first year PhD student, who is part of the University of Guelph’s Canada GOOSE team. He believes this technology can be used to grow food and educate communities outside the lab. (Carmen Groleau/CBC)

“We have a multi-tier system growing a variety of plants, but the whole environment is being controlled so, air circulation, temperature, CO2 level, also light levels with the LEDs. So basically giving the best conditions for the plants to grow,” explained Serge Levesque, a second-year PhD student.

Rosemary Brockett, a second year masters student, explained the crops were developed and grown to produce as little waste as possible.

A row of different vegetables grown inside a unit.
The Canada GOOSE team uses a hydroponic-like system in their growth chamber to produce different fruits and vegetables, as well as mushrooms. (Carmen Groleau/CBC)

“We can’t have any kind of waste in space or in remote areas so we’re growing them all using fabric wicks,” she said.

“The fabric pulls up the water to the plants and then we have 3D-printed holders that support the plants and the fabric.”

Brockett said they can grow root vegetables like turnips and carrots; dwarf tomatoes and peppers; leafy greens like cabbage, lettuce and bok choy; smaller trays have herbs, radish microgreens and sprouts.

Levesque said they also grow mushrooms because they play a key role in the unit’s ecosystem.

“Plants photosynthesize and release oxygen and mushrooms need oxygen to release CO2, so it allows us to use CO2 more efficiently,” he said, adding the inedible parts of other vegetables can be used to help grow the mushrooms; a way to re-use and eliminate waste.

A group of people wearing blue lab coats gather around a small greenhouse in a lab.
Representatives with the Canadian Space Agency were at the University of Guelph on Thursday, as students who are part of the school’s Canada GOOSE team competing in the Deep Space Food Challenge. (Carmen Groleau/CBC)

Tech can help feed, educate Earthlings

The Canadian grand prize won’t be announced until Spring 2024, but no matter the results, the students see applications for their technology closer to home.

First-year PhD student Ajwal Dsouza says it could be a useful education tool for youth, for example.

“Imagine putting this system up in a school or a university and educate people about the technological advancements happening but also [encourage] younger generations to study this,” and can also imagine applications in addressing food insecurity in other more remote parts of the world, like Canada’s northern communities.

“A system like this can be economically feasible. You can use it in remote areas where there is food insecurity using limited resources,” he said.

“We can grow food in places where the weather is not good, like Canada’s north or in a desert, where there’s limited resources. This can help people grow food in tough conditions,” said Dsouza.

The Canada GOOSE team will find out if they enter the third stage of the competition in March.

 

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