Saga of Tiny Drill Hole in the ISS Continues as Russia Sends Investigation to Police

Saga of Tiny Drill Hole in the ISS Continues as Russia Sends Investigation to Police
The International Space Station. (Image: ESA)

The results of a Roscosmos investigation into a hole in the International Space Station have been handed over to “law enforcement authorities,” Russian state-owned news agency RIA Novosti claims. The incident happened three years ago, when a leaky drill hole was detected in the Russian Soyuz MS-09 module. Further information wasn’t provided, and there’s “no official information about the initiation of a criminal case on this matter,” according to RIA Novosti.

The small drill hole never put the ISS at risk, but Russian state media has propagated nasty and seemingly unfounded rumours about its cause. Earlier this year, Russian state-owned news agency TASS alleged that NASA astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor became psychologically unstable after developing deep vein thrombosis, compelling her to drill a hole in the Soyuz capsule in the hopes of expediting an early return to Earth. Roscosmos hasn’t offered any evidence to support this accusation, and NASA is standing by its astronaut.

Now, RIA Novosti claims, along with TASS, that a new theory is being published by Russian state media: that Auñón-Chancellor drilled the hole “due to suffering [psychologically] after a failed romantic relationship with one of the crew members.” Russia’s recent track record with the space station has been shaky to say the least, following a mishap earlier this year that caused the ISS to roll backwards and its recent anti-satellite weapons test that put the ISS crew in danger. Speaking to Ars Technica, NASA administrator Bill Nelson said the Russian “attacks are false and lack any credibility.”

The incident dates back to August 2018, when a minor air pressure leak was detected on the ISS. The leak was eventually traced to a 2-millimetre hole in the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft docked outside, which was patched with Kapton tape and later with an epoxy-based sealant. Auñón-Chancellor, along with Expedition 56/57 crewmembers Alexander Gerst of ESA and Sergey Prokopyev of Roscosmos, used the spacecraft to return home at the conclusion of their six-month mission.

An investigation into the hole ruled out a micrometeorite, as the damage came from inside the capsule. The most plausible explanation seems to be that it occurred during the manufacturing process. Roscosmos director general Dmitry Rogozin says the Russian space agency knows the true origin of the hole, but it won’t make the information available, TASS claims.

“The notion that any astronaut — or cosmonaut — would deliberately drill holes in their spacecraft — especially one designed to take them back to Earth — for any reason — is ludicrous,” Keith Cowing, a former NASA employee and editor of the site NASA Watch, explained in an email. “The only plausible explanation is that the damage happened on Earth before [the Soyuz MS-09] was even launched.” To which he added: “Russia is clearly sensitive about the way its chronically underfunded space efforts are portrayed.”

Cowing described Nelson’s denunciation of the Russian claims as “flat,” and he criticised Rogozin for allowing “these conspiracy stories to fester in the Russian media” instead of putting them to a stop.

Relations between Russia and the United States are tense even at the best of times, but the ISS was supposed to be a safe space for these rival countries to cooperate. So sad to see it come to this.

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