MOSCOW — The Russian Soyuz spacecraft that will return three astronauts to Earth from the international space station this week is leaking helium, Russian space officials said Wednesday.
The leak is very minor and does not pose any danger, Vera Medvedkova, spokeswoman for Russian Mission Control, told The Associated Press. NASA also said the leak poses no threat.
“There are absolutely no safety concerns,” said Debbie Rahn, a NASA spokeswoman currently in Russia.
Russian Mission Control, NASA and the Russian space agency, Rosaviakosmos, said there is no need to modify the landing, which will be carried on as scheduled on Friday.
“This leak doesn’t present any kind of danger for the landing of this crew, and the landing will be carried out according to plan,” Vladimir Solovyov, the chief of Russia’s Mission Control, was quoted by the Interfax and Itar-Tass news agencies as saying.
Used to pressure tanks
The helium is used to pressurize the Soyuz craft’s fuel tanks for its descent from orbit, Rahn said.
“There is plenty of helium there to pressure the propellent tank,” she said, adding that the Soyuz also has a backup system available.
Solovyov told Interfax that the leak was found several months ago, but that specialists didn’t consider it significant enough to delay the landing. Rahn confirmed that it had been found earlier and that extensive talks between NASA and Russian flight teams had taken place.
“Similar small leaks of helium have been found earlier in other Soyuz crafts, but they have had no effect on the cosmonauts’ return to Earth,” Solovyov was quoted as saying. “In all similar cases, the landing has been successful.”
Astronauts to ride home
The Soyuz TMA-3, which has been in space for six months, is scheduled to return two space station residents, American astronaut Michael Foale and Russian cosmonaut Alexander Kaleri, to Earth on Friday. European Space Agency astronaut Andre Kuipers of the Netherlands will also be returning after a nine-day mission on the station.
The U.S. manned space program has been entirely dependent on Russia’s Soyuz crafts since the grounding of U.S. shuttles following the Columbia disaster in February 2003.
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