Alarming new traces of ‘drilling’ have been found on a Soyuz spacecraft docked with the International Space Station, Russian sources revealed today.
Moscow had already hinted at possible sabotage over damage found to the Soyuz MS-09 and a major whodunnit investigation is underway.
Officials have claimed the damage to the spacecraft appears to have been caused by a drill, and could have occurred on the ground pre-launch – or while in orbit.
Now a source close to the Russian space agency Roscosmos has admitted the damage was more extensive than previously thought.
‘Traces of drilling have been found not only inside the spacecraft’s living compartment,’ said the source.
The damage was also ‘on the screen of the anti-meteorite shield that covers the spacecraft from the outside and is installed 15 millimetres from the pressurised hull’.
A drop in pressure due to an air leak was first detected on the $150 billion (£115 billion) orbital station overnight on August 30.
The cause was later discovered to be a two-millimetre hole in the orbital compartment of the manned Soyuz MS-09 space vehicle, which has been docked to the space station for two months.
Russian cosmonauts quickly plugged the hole and restored pressure, patching it up with several layers of epoxy resin – a glue-like substance.
After the hole was sealed cosmonauts carried out photo- and video surveillance of the hole using an endoscope.
A Russian official said last week that the hole appeared to have been punctured using a drill, and could have been caused deliberately by someone on the ground.
Now a source says the extent of the damage was greater than experts first feared.
‘During the analysis of those images, traces of drilling were found on the anti-meteorite shield,’ said the source, as cited by Russian TASS news agency.
‘The top of the drill came through the pressure hull and hit the non-gas-tight outer shell.’
The latest disclosure comes as Russia was seeking to to calm speculation over the spacecraft damage.
Earlier this week space agency head Dmitry Rogozin held phone talks over the problem with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.
Both side agreed to ‘refrain from any premature conclusions and from presenting any explanations before the investigation is fully completed’.
Initially it was thought the damage could have been caused by a micrometeorite piercing the spacecraft.
This was ruled out and Rogozin – a close Vladimir Putin ally – raised the possibility of sabotage.
He asked: ‘What was it: a defect or some intentional acts? Where were these acts carried out? On the Earth or already in orbit?
‘Yet again, I am saying: we are not dismissing anything.’
Rogozin said it was ‘a matter of honour…to find whoever was guilty’ of causing the spacecraft damage – and ‘whether it was deliberate’.
The Russian media even speculated that a US astronaut might have sabotaged the spacecraft to delay a possible early return to earth due to alleged sickness of one member of the ISS crew.
But Russia now appears to be focusing on possible damages during the last stage of works or during its 90-day stay in the checkout stand ahead of transportation to the Baikonur launch site in Kazakhstan.
An industry source denied damage was possible before this – and it is thought unlikely to have been tampered with at Baikonur.
‘When Soyuz MS-09 just arrived to the final assembly workshop, it was photographed in detail,’ said the source.
‘No hole and no signs of drilling… were found.’