MOSCOW (AP) - A Russian space capsule safely returned to Earth without a crew Tuesday, months after it suffered a coolant leak in orbit.
The Soyuz MS-22 leaked coolant in December while attached to the International Space Station. Russian space officials blamed the leak on a tiny meteoroid that punctured the craft's external radiator. They launched an empty replacement capsule last month to serve as a lifeboat for the crew.
The damaged capsule safely landed Tuesday under a striped parachute in the steppes of Kazakhstan, touching down as scheduled at 5:45 p.m. (7:45 a.m. EDT) 147 kilometers (91 miles) southeast of Zhezkazgan under clear blue skies.
Space officials determined it would be too risky to bring NASA's Frank Rubio and Russia's Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin back in the Soyuz in March as originally planned, as cabin temperatures would spike with no coolant, potentially damaging computers and other equipment, and exposing the suited-up crew to excessive heat.
The three launched in September for what should have been a six-month mission on the International Space Station. They now are scheduled to return to Earth in September in a new Soyuz that arrived at the space outpost last month with no one on board, meaning the trio will spend a year in orbit.
Also on the station are NASA astronauts Stephen Bowen and Woody Hoburg, the United Arab Emirates' Sultan Alneyadi, and Russia's Andrey Fedyaev.
A similar coolant leak was spotted in February on the Russian Progress MS-21 cargo ship docked at the space outpost, raising suspicions of a manufacturing flaw. Russian state space corporation Roscosmos ruled out any defects after a check and concluded that both incidents resulted from hits by meteoroids.