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OUT OF THIS WORLD | What's Up In Space - a weekly look at the biggest news coming down to Earth from space

Astronauts make emergency landing after Soyuz rocket failure


Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Thursday, October 11, 2018, 12:14 PM - American astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin survived a harrowing emergency landing, following the failure of the Soyuz rocket booster carrying them to space, but what does this mean for the International Space Station?

This story has been updated.

Just over two minutes into the flight of the latest Soyuz rocket, delivering crew members to the International Space Station, the booster suffered some kind of in-flight accident, as debris was spotted in the rocket's wake during live coverage of the launch.

Watch below: Astronaut Hague and cosmonaut Ovchinin's Soyuz rocket fails, just two minutes into launch (at 2:20 in video)



The rocket's emergency abort system took over at that point, ejecting the Soyuz capsule, which carried the two-man crew on a harrowing ride back down to Earth. Reports say that the two experienced a force of 21g during their escape - 21 times the force of gravity.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine posted the following statement to Twitter following the incident:

The Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to the International Space Station at 4:40 a.m. EDT Thursday, October 11 (2:40 p.m. in Baikonur) carrying American astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin. Shortly after launch, there was an anomaly with the booster and the launch ascent was aborted, resulting in a ballistic landing of the spacecraft.

Search and rescue teams were deployed to the landing site. Hague and Ovchinin are out of the capsule and are reported to be in good condition. They will be transported to the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia outside of Moscow.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and the NASA team are monitoring the situation carefully. NASA is working closely with Roscosmos to ensure the safe return of the crew. Safety of the crew is the utmost priority for NASA. A thorough investigation into the cause of the incident will be conducted.

More details on the status of Hague and Ovchinin when they come in.

WHAT NOW?

With the failure of this launch, there are far-reaching consequences for the world's human space programs, and for those astronauts and cosmonauts currently on board the International Space Station.


The International Space Station in orbit above Earth. Credit: NASA

Currently, the Russian's Soyuz rocket is the only system in the world that can carry human crew members up to the ISS, and return them safely home afterward. So, if the Soyuz is grounded for the duration of an investigation - and such an investigation could take months, given how complicated rocket technology is - that would mean no new crews launching to the ISS until the problem was found and corrected.

Furthermore, according to retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, there is still one Soyuz spacecraft docked with the orbiting science station, which was originally scheduled to carry Serena Aunon-Chancellor of NASA, Alexander Gerst of ESA and Sergey Prokopyev of Roscosmos, back to Earth on December 13. To follow that schedule without launching a new Soyuz with new crew members, beforehand, however, would mean completely abandoning the space station.

Since the station does not do well on its own, as it is in need of regular crew maintenance, all member states would be extremely reluctant to abandon it. Thus, Aunon-Chancellor, Gerst and Prokopyev are effectively "marooned" in space at this time, said Hadfield.

Watch Commander Hadfield's Periscope session here.

The last Soyuz to return to Earth was on October 4, carrying NASA astronauts Drew Feustel and Ricky Arnold, and cosmonaut Oleg Artemyev of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, after their 197-day mission.

With this accident, and the potentially lengthy investigation that will follow, the December launch of the next set of crew members, which includes Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques, will be on indefinite hold, as will any other crewed launches that have been scheduled.

To complicate matters, any Soyuz craft in orbit is only registered for 200 days. Since the current Soyuz docked with the ISS - Soyuz MS-09 - arrived on June 8, 2018, that gives them until December 25, 2018 to use it. Any longer and the craft's safety cannot be guaranteed. Thus if the crew stays beyond Christmas 2018, they will definitely have to wait until the next Soyuz can launch before they can return home.

Private crewed launch vehicles, currently in development by SpaceX and Boeing, are not expected to be ready until at least next year (possibly in January).

In the mean time, uncrewed launches are still possible. Roscosmos' Progress, Japan Aerospace and Exploration Agency's Kounotori, SpaceX's Dragon and Orbital Science's Cygnus spacecrafts are available to deliver cargo to the space station, to keep the existing crew stocked with food, supplies, equipment and science experiments, for the duration of their stay, however long that may be.

Sources: NASA | Chris Hadfield

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that there are no Soyuz spacecraft currently berthed at the International Space Station. This has been corrected. We apologize for any confusion.

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