Astronauts scrambled last week to find and patch a small hole in the International Space Station (ISS) that threatened to leak the station’s atmosphere into space. The crew eventually discovered a tiny puncture in the Russian Soyuz capsule docked to the station. The hole was first identified as a micrometeoroid puncture, but now that’s looking less likely. Russia suggests this damage was caused either accidentally or on purpose by human hands. Did someone try to sabotage the ISS?
Authorities are adamant that the six-person crew of the ISS was not in danger at any point as they hunted for the leak. The hole caused a drop in cabin pressure, which is still something you want to address even if it’s not imminently deadly. Astronauts patched the hole with a special type of bonding tape and the crisis was averted. Since the damage was in the Russian module, Russia was tasked with the investigation.
At first, everyone seemed content with this explanation — after all, there are many thousands of space junk objects scattered around Earth that could have made a hole that size. But now Russia has called the micrometeoroid cause into question. Russia’s Space agency chief Dmitry Rogozin said on a televised appearance that the damage is not consistent with an impact. He said the hole was from a drill, and that it appears the drill wavered, leaving scuff marks around the hole. NASA deleted the images it posted publicly with the micrometeoroid explanation attached, but they do look sort of like drill holes to the uninformed.
As for whether or not this is a case of sabotage, that depends on how exactly the hole got there. A Russian firm called Energia manufactured Soyuz capsules for the government, and employees in the past have made mistakes that led to similar damage. In one instance, a technician drilled through the hull and attempted to hide the damage with epoxy. However, the damage was detected pre-flight, and the worker was fired.
Some have wondered if a resident of the ISS caused the damage by accident or on purpose, but it’s more likely this hole was present since the capsule was on the ground. It flew to the ISS in June carrying three passengers: Russia’s Sergey Prokopyev, Germany’s Alexander Gerst, and the Serena Auñón-Chancellor of the US. Russian operators did not detect any issues at the time, but the hole may have been patched and later failed in orbit. NASA says it is withholding judgment until the Roscosmos investigatory committee completes its work.