Russia to retrieve ISS crew with backup capsule after meteoroid damages spacecraft

The Russian space agency announced on Wednesday that it will launch an unmanned space capsule to the International Space Station next month to replace a damaged spacecraft that is docked there now, The New York Times is reporting.

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The capsule, set to be launched Feb. 20, will replace a ship that took three astronauts to the ISS in September. That ship was hit by a meteoroid in December and damaged.

On Dec. 14, the crew reported seeing small white particles spewing from the craft. Officials at the Russian space agency Roscosmos and NASA said they believe the material is coolant.

When the meteoroid hit the ship, Roscosmos said the strike caused no immediate threat to the crew -- Russian cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitry Petelin and US astronaut Francisco Rubio.

However, there is a concern that the damaged ship could overheat upon reentry, putting the astronauts in jeopardy.

“This is the next Soyuz (spacecraft) that was scheduled to fly in March,” said Joel Montalbano, the space station program manager at NASA, during a news conference on Wednesday. “It’ll just fly a little earlier.”

When the ship reaches the ISS, the spacecraft believed to be damaged by a meteoroid will be returned to Earth without passengers.

Montalbano talked about the damage to the craft at the news conference.

“Everything does point to a micrometeoroid” hit and not space debris, or a technical problem, Montalbano said in the news conference.

The astronauts had been scheduled to return to Earth in March but will now remain in orbit for several more months.