About four hours into a spacewalk on Tuesday, Russian astronauts pulled out a knife and began cutting into a spacecraft docked at the International Space Station.
Soon they began slashing with vigor through the outer insulation, with flurries of debris flying into space. Other times, they used what looked like hedge shears to cut first through the insulation that was the spacecraft’s outer layer, and then into an aluminum micrometeoroid shield beneath that.
“Don’t forget to be careful,” Russian flight controllers in Moscow repeatedly warned the astronauts, protected from the vacuum of space by nothing but a spacesuit. “And don’t forget about the sharp edges. That’s our main concern.”
Finally, the astronauts, Oleg Kononenko and Sergey Prokopyev, found what they were looking for: a tiny, sealed hole in the spacecraft’s hull.
They sought out this puncture because they were seeking clues to who drilled that circular hole in a Soyuz craft that is currently docked at the space station. The hole caused a small air leak at the space station in August. Though quickly sealed, it roiled space relations between the United States and Russia as Russian media speculated that a NASA astronaut had deliberately sabotaged the station.
The spacewalk, the 213th at the station, began at 10:59 a.m. Eastern time and lasted 7 hours, 45 minutes.
The Soyuz spacecraft will return to Earth later this month. The hole and the additional damage caused by Tuesday’s investigation will pose no danger to the descending astronauts. That part of the spacecraft will be discarded before re-entry.
During the spacewalk, the astronauts took pictures of the hole and collected residues that may help solve the orbital whodunit.