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Astronauts Set To Return to Earth in Spacecraft They Just Cut a Hole In

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Tonight at 8:40 p.m. EST, Expedition 57 Commander Alexander Gerst and Flight Engineers Serena Auñón-Chancellor and Sergey Prokopyev will end their 197-day mission in space and return home inside the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft.

The astronauts will undock the spacecraft from the International Space Station, travel back toward Earth, and ultimately parachute down to Kazakhstan three-and-a-half hours later. Prokopyev will command the Soyuz flight which will be live-streamed on NASA TV. But, just a few days ago, this same spacecraft had a large hole cut into it by Prokopyev and Oleg Kononenko during a spacewalk.

The cosmonauts cut out pieces of the external hull of the craft’s orbital module to bring back to Earth for analysis. These pieces will be studied as part of an ongoing investigation to find the cause or culprit behind the hole that appeared in the spacecraft this past summer. The hole was discovered after astronauts noticed a pressure dip inside the space station. After initially investigating and patching it up, drill marks near the hole led some to speculate that it could have been created intentionally. After cutting out samples for analysis and taking photos of the site, the hole was once again patched up during the spacewalk.

Safety First

But will it be safe for these astronauts to travel back to Earth on a spacecraft that was recently cut apart with a knife? According to Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who tracks the objects that launch into space and back, “I think it’s gonna be just fine.”

The patched-up hole in the Soyuz craft is located in its orbital module. The trip that astronauts take to the space station lasts anywhere from 6 hours to two days. Comparing the ride to an airplane flight, McDowell explained that astronauts use this orbital module on the way up so they can float around and stretch their legs, which makes the trip more comfortable. But the journey back down to Earth is significantly shorter, lasting just a few hours. That’s why the orbital module is closed off and the astronauts travel only in the descent module on their way back down to Earth.

Because of this, even if the patch job doesn’t hold and the orbital module springs another leak, the astronauts on board will almost certainly land safely. The only danger, according to McDowell, is if the module springs a leak at the wrong time, the leak could act almost like a rocket engine and provide thrust that could push the craft in the wrong direction. If this happened early in the journey, the thrust could be counteracted with additional thrust from the craft. But if it happened later on in the trip, it could be dangerous.

“Worst case I can see is if it springs a leak during the deorbit burn because while you’re decelerating the spacecraft to bring it down out of orbit you really want your thrust to be in the correct direction,” McDowell said. But, so far, the first and now second patch jobs have both held up without issue.

“I’m not concerned, it’s really hard for anything in the orbital module to make things go badly in the descent module where the astronauts are,” McDowell said. “I’ll still be very glad when they get down,” he added.

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Ecology

Today’s letters: ‘Visionary’ plans don’t always work in Ottawa

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The opinion piece written by Tobi Nussbaum, CEO of the NCC, declares that a “bold, visionary transit plan” would showcase the capital.

As a long-term resident of Ottawa, I’ve had it with visionary plans. In the 1950s, the streetcars serving Ottawa so well were sent to the scrapyards. In the early ’60s, Queensway construction bulldozed established neighbourhoods and ripped the city apart. Later in the decade, the downtown railway station, which could have formed the hub of a commuter network, was relocated to the suburbs. These actions, in the name of “progress,” were undertaken with the “vision” to make Ottawa a car-reliant city.

Now we have an LRT, built just in time for most people to realize that they do not have to go downtown as they can work from home.

Current thinking is pushing a new “link” between Ottawa and Gatineau, with yet more expensive and disruptive infrastructure projects being touted, including a tramway or another tunnel under the downtown core.

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Ecology

That was then: Biggest earthquake since 1653 rocked Ottawa in 1925

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A regular weekly look-back at some offbeat or interesting stories that have appeared in the Ottawa Citizen over its 175-year history. Today: The big one hits.

The Ottawa Senators were playing a Saturday night game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Auditorium, the score tied 0-0 halfway through the second period. Sens’ rookie Ed Gorman and the Habs’ Billy Boucher had just served penalties for a dustup when the building began to make “ominous creaking sounds.” A window crashed to the ground.

Nearby, at Lisgar Collegiate, all eyes were on teenager Roxie Carrier, in the role of Donna Cyrilla in the musical comedy El Bandido. She had the stage to herself and was singing “Sometime” when the building rocked, the spotlight went out, and someone in the audience yelled “Fire!”

At a home on Carey Avenue, one woman’s normally relaxed cat suddenly arched its back, rushed around the room two or three times, spitting angrily, and climbed up the front-window curtains.

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Ecology

Ottawa delays small nuclear reactor plan as critics decry push for new reactors

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TORONTO — Canadians will have to wait a little while longer to see the federal government’s plan for the development of small nuclear reactors, seen by proponents as critical to the country’s fight against global warming.

Speaking at the opening of a two-day virtual international conference on Wednesday, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of natural resources said the plan will lay out key actions regarding the reactors. Its launch, Paul Lefebvre said, would come in the next few weeks.

“We’re still putting the finishing touches on it,” Lefebvre said. “The action plan is too important to be rushed.”

Small modular reactors — SMRs — are smaller in size and energy output than traditional nuclear power units, and more flexible in their deployment. While conventional reactors produce around 800 megawatts of power, SMRs can deliver up to 300 megawatts.

Proponents consider them ideal as both part of the regular electricity grid as well as for use in remote locations, including industrial sites and isolated northern communities. They could also play a role in the production of hydrogen and local heating.

“SMRs will allow us to take a bold step of meeting our goal of net-zero (emissions) by 2050 while creating good, middle class jobs and strengthening our competitive advantage,” said Lefebvre.

Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan had been scheduled to speak at the conference but did not due to a family emergency.

Industry critics were quick to pounce on the government’s expected SMR announcement. They called on Ottawa to halt its plans to fund the experimental technology.

While nuclear power generation produces no greenhouse gas emissions, a major problem facing the industry is its growing mound of radioactive waste. This week, the government embarked on a round of consultations about what do with the dangerous material.

Dozens of groups, including the NDP, Bloc Quebecois, Green Party and some Indigenous organizations, oppose the plan for developing small modular reactors. They want the government to fight climate change by investing more in renewable energy and energy efficiency.

“We have options that are cheaper and safer and will be available quicker,” Richard Cannings, the NDP natural resources critic, said in a statement.

Lefebvre, however, said the global market for SMRs is expected to be worth between $150 billion and $300 billion a year by 2040. As one of the world’s largest producers of uranium, Canada has to be part of the wave both for economic and environmental reasons, he said.

“There’s a growing demand for smaller, simpler and affordable nuclear technology energy,” Lefebvre said.

Joe McBrearty, head of Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, told the conference the company had signed a host agreement this week with Ottawa-based Global First Power for a demonstration SMR at its Chalk River campus in eastern Ontario. A demonstration reactor will allow for the assessment of the technology’s overall viability, he said.

“When talking about deploying a new technology like an SMR, building a demonstration unit is vital to the success of that process,” McBrearty said. “Most importantly, it allows the public to see the reactor, to kick the tires so to speak, and to have confidence in the safety of its operation.”

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