Russia launches unmanned rescue ship for NASA astronaut, two cosmonauts after spacecraft leak

Russia launched an unmanned rescue ship to aid a NASA astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts who have been stranded at the International Space Station since their spacecraft began having a leak in December.

The Soyuz capsule is expected to arrive at the station on Sunday to bring supplies for astronaut Frank Rubio and cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin. The leak began when a micrometeorite broke a hole in the external radiator and drained its coolant — which could allow the temperature inside the spacecraft to spike and expose those aboard to excessive heat while damaging computers and other equipment.

The capsule launched from Kazakhstan with two NASA officials present to observe after the Russian Space Agency did not find any defects. It reached orbit nine minutes after takeoff, equipped with supplies tied to three seats.

The three astronauts at the station were originally scheduled to come back next month, but officials determined doing so was too dangerous.

Officials have instituted an emergency plan for Rubio to move to a SpaceX capsule also docked at the station, while Prokopyev and Petelin remain in the Soyuz capsule if a quick getaway is necessary.

Russian engineers believe having one less person in the capsule would keep the temperature low enough that it would be manageable.

The plan will remain in place until the unmanned capsule arrives for the three of them. They initially launched in September for a planned six-month mission but will stay in space until a new capsule is set to take their replacements to the station this coming September.

The Soyuz capsule carrying supplies was supposed to take the replacements to the station. But, it will return to Earth without the crew next month to allow engineers to examine it.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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