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Cosmonauts complete risky spacewalk
On Dec. 11, 2018, Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kononenko and Sergei Prokopiev embarked on a risky and controversial spacewalk, designated VKD-45a, to investigate an unexplained hole in the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft, which led to an air leak aboard the International Space Station, ISS, in August. The pair attempted to literally uncover the mystery around the origin of the hole, by cutting through the soft thermal insulation and the aluminum meteoroid shielding on the exterior of the Soyuz' Habitation Module.
VKD-45a spacewalk at a glance:
In preparation for the VKD-45a spacewalk, Kononenko and Prokopiev were scheduled to begin donning their Orlan spacesuits around 17:00 Moscow Time (9 a.m. EST) on Dec. 11, 2018. The six-hour sortie was set to begin with the hatch opening at 19:05 Moscow Time (11:05 a.m. EST) on the same day.
Kononenko, wearing an Orlan suit with red stripes, and Prokopiev, dressed in a suit with blue stripes, opened the hatch of the Pirs Docking Compartment, SO1, at 18:59 Moscow Time (10:59 EST). They spent the next hour and 15 minutes securing their hatch with a protective ring, gathering equipment and preparing the first Strela translation boom, GTsM-1, for a ride across the Russian Segment from SO1, to the transfer compartment of the Zarya FGB Control Module. Kononenko began the transfer around 20:15 Moscow Time (12:15 p.m. EST), as Prokopiev controlled the movements of the GTsM-1 Strela at its base.
Kononenko reached his destination on Zarya FGB around 20:36 Moscow Time (12:36 p.m. EST), followed by Prokopiev around 10 minutes later. The pair spent the next hour struggling with the interface of the GStM-2 boom, opening up some lag in the schedule.
Only at 21:55 Moscow Time (1:55 p.m. EST), did Kononenko begin attaching his feet to a foot restraint on the GTsM-2, however the platform turned out to be in the wrong orientation and had to be repositioned. Finally, by 22:05 Moscow Time (2:05 p.m. EST), Kononenko, with Prokopiev's help finally fixed himself into the foot restraints of the GTsM-2 boom.
Around 22:15 Moscow Time (2:20 p.m. EST), or three hours 15 minutes into the spacewalk and around 40 minutes behind schedule, Kononenko reached the Soyuz spacecraft, but initially found himself on the wrong side of the ship's Habitation Module. Prokopiev then also moved to the Habitation Module and by around 22:45 Moscow Time (2:45 p.m.), helped Kononenko to get into the right position.
Around four hours into the spacewalk, Kononenko used a knife to make the first hole in the thermal insulation of the Habitation Module. However the planned switch to scissors to expand the cut was problematic because the cosmonaut was pushed away every time he applied force to the instrument. Kononenko went back to the use of the knife, but it also proved very difficult, pushing the team even more behind schedule.
By 23:43 Moscow Time (3:43 p.m. EST), cosmonauts confirmed seeing the meteoroid shielding, as they worked to clear a thick cloud of debris around the area.
Around midnight in Moscow (4 p.m. EST), the cosmonauts began cleaning the work place to prepare tackling the micro-meteoroid shielding, which turned out to be easier than work with soft insulation. In around 10 minutes, they cut and peeled off a segment of the shielding, but it took them a few minutes to actually see the hole at the edge of the exposed area and they had to cut a second smaller piece of meteoroid shielding.
They improvised an attempt to pick black material extruding from the hole with forceps, but it was very difficult to do in bulky spacesuit and due to the brittle nature of the material. Around six hours into the spacewalk, they finally proceeded with a pre-planned sampling operation.
By that time, mission control dropped the original plan to re-patch the exposed area on the Soyuz, deeming it unnecessary. A couple of optional tasks to remove long-exposure experiments from the Pirs Docking Compartment, were also cancelled to save time in the already extended spacewalk.
As the cosmonauts were heading back, the other inhabitants of the station prepared for the ingress operations in the unlikely failure to close the hatch of the airlock. Anne McClain and David Saint Jacques took the seats inside the Soyuz MS-11 spacecraft, while Alexander Gerst and Serena Auñón-Chancellor would be in the US segment of the station.
By 01:30 Moscow Time on December 12 (5:30 p.m. EST on December 11), the cosmonauts returned to the exterior of the Zarya FGB module and folded the GTsM-2 boom. By around 02:15 Moscow Time (6:15 p.m. EST), they used the GTsM-1 boom to get back to the Pirs, SO1, module.
Before reentering the station, the cosmonauts were instructed to check each others space suits to minimize the possibility of contaminating the interior of the station with insulation debris generated during the cutting operations.
After reentering the Pirs Docking Compartment, the cosmonauts closed the hatch at 02:44 Moscow Time on Dec. 12, 2018, (6:44 p.m. EST on December 11), having logged 7 hours 45 minutes outside the station.
Cosmonauts return to the Pirs Docking Compartment at the end of the VKD-45a spacewalk.
VKD-45a spacewalk statistics (according to NASA):
Oleg Kononenko approaches Soyuz MS-09 around 2:30 p.m. EST on Dec. 11, 2018. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA
The first cut in the insulation of the Soyuz was made around 2:55 p.m. EST on Dec. 11, 2018. Credit: NASA
Special scissors were also used. Credit: NASA
Oleg Kononenko completes first incision on the Habitation Module. Credit: NASA
The cutting operation was largely completed by 4:45 p.m. EST. Credit: NASA
Cosmonauts peel off meteoroid shielding. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA
A hole is visible in the exposed area of the Habitation Module. Credit: NASA