On August 30, the inhabitants onboard the International Space Station (ISS) were alerted to falling atmospheric pressure. The leak was very slow, and it was easily fixed by placing some Kapton adhesive tape over the place where the hole was, and then filling the hole with epoxy sealant. No one was in danger from this leak.
However, initial reports that the hole was due to a micrometeroid impact have given way to much more disturbing speculation. The hole was 2 millimeters across, and it was on the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft which is currently docked to the ISS. And it appears to have been man-made.
ISS leak update: the patch is reported to be holding but further work will be done. The best guess seems to be that the hole is NOT a debris strike but a drill hole created during manufacture and whatever was plugging it for the past 2 months popped out a couple days ago.
— Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) September 1, 2018
The Internet is abuzz about the possibilities of this being anything from a manufacturing defect to deliberate sabotage. TASS News Agency reported the following:
The hull of the manned spacecraft Soyuz MS-09 was damaged on the ground, most probably, at the industrial plant that made it (space rocket corporation Energia), because drilling the hole on board the ISS in a situation of zero gravity would hardly [be] possible, if at all, a member of the K.E. Tsiolkovsky Russian Academy of Cosmonautics, Alexander Zheleznyakov, told TASS.
“Why should any of the crew try to do that? I would not like to use the word nonsense, but all this does not fit in well with logic,” Zheleznyakov said, when asked if any of the ISS crew might have made the hole in the spacecraft’s hull. “Judging by what I saw on the photos, it must have been done on Earth. The hole is in a place that is very hard to get to. Drilling it would not be easy.”
“At Baikonur the spaceship is tested for leaks. It is examined by the manufacturer. Most probably all had happened at the manufacturer’s plant. A hole that has been patched up with glue is hard to detect. The glue was strong enough and the hole not very big. The test for leaks was passed. There was no chance for electronic equipment to spot anything, either. Most probably, a worker drilled a wrong hole and then patched it up and then either avoided telling anyone or those he had informed preferred to keep quiet, too,” Zheleznyakov said, adding that theoretically, a situation where several people knew about the incident was a possibility.
Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin earlier said the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft, attacheds to the ISS, had been damaged from the inside and the space rocket corporation Energia was proceeding with inquiries to identify those responsible. Various versions were being considered, but the impact of a meteorite had already been ruled out. Investigation is in progress into who had access to the spacecraft, what manipulations and works were performed, and who supervised them, Rogozin said.
On August 30, instruments registered falling atmospheric pressure inside the ISS. The crew examined the compartments of the station and the spacecraft docked to it one by one to expose a two-millimeter hole in the hull of the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft. In the evening of the same day it was patched up with several layers of epoxy resin. The air pressure on board the ISS returned to normal. On August 31, the crew reinforced the patch.
While this rather factual explanation is probably the whole story about the actual problem on board, the media speculation on sabotage started to take on a life of its own on Tuesday. Carly Casella, writing for sciencealert.com, had these thoughts to offer:
…A special commission was set up by the Russian State Space Corporation Roscosmos to investigate the cause of the rupture. What they found was unexpected.
At first it seemed likely that the tiny hole had come from a micrometeoroid impact – one of the many bullets of debris that whizz around in space.
But as the inquiry progressed, the hole began to look more and more like it came not from the outside, but from the inside.
“We are considering all the theories,” said Dmitry Rogozin, head of Roscosmos, according to the Russian news agency Tass.
“The one about a meteorite impact has been rejected because the spaceship’s hull was evidently impacted from inside”.
Then, things began to get shadier. A photo, released by NASA and then mysteriously deleted, reveals what looks strangely like a drill hole.
“It was done by a human hand – there are traces of a drill sliding along the surface,” confirmed Rogozin.
We even have a tweet from the ISS and a photo:
ISS Leak summary:
First thought was MMOD strike.
Then NASA released pics. Lots of people: "Hmmm, doesn't look like MMOD". NASA deleted the photos.
Top Russian news site RIA NOVOSTI reported – via sources but apparently confirmed by Mr. Rogozin – it was a drill hole. pic.twitter.com/520kHK0TMc
— Chris B – NSF (@NASASpaceflight) September 3, 2018
And this video offers the conversation that took place about repairing it.
And the Sciencealert.com article went even further:
Rogozin assured the media and the public that the Russian space agency was doing everything it could to find the culprit.
“It is a matter of honour for Energia Rocket and Space Corporation to find the one responsible for that, to find out whether it was an accidental defect or a deliberate spoilage and where it was done – either on Earth or in space,” he said, referring to the Russian manufacturer of the space craft.Right now, the leading theory comes from an unnamed source at Energia, which told the Russian news agency RIA Novosti that “[t]he hole was made on the ground” and that “[t]he person responsible for the act of negligence has been identified”.
Another anonymous source confirmed that the hole was accidentally drilled by a worker at Energia, who decided to hide their mistake with a seal and decorative fabric instead of reporting it.
For two months, the gamble paid off. Their patchy solution even managed to pass the spacecraft’s pressurisation tests before it was launched into space to meet up with the ISS. But then, the seal began to leak.
“[Once in orbit], the glue dried and was squeezed out, opening the hole,” the second source told RIA Novosti.
Repairing the hole has been neither simple nor straightforward, and the problem may have even caused a few cracks between Moscow and Houston.
The plot indeed does appear to be thickening.