Some routine repairs on the International Space Station unveiled something mysterious last week when a Russian astronaut found holes drilled into the side of the orbiting vessel.

According to a NASA press release, two Russian astronauts by the names of Oleg Kononenko and Nikolai Chub were on a spacewalk on October 25, attempting to repair a radiator that was leaking coolant into the vacuum of space when they found an additional irregularity.

According to an article in Space, Kononenko was inspecting one of the outer panels of the leaky radiator when he noticed what appeared to be multiple holes drilled into the surface of the radiator panel. 

“The holes have very even edges, like they’ve been drilled through,” Kononenko said to the flight controllers working in Moscow Mission Control. “There are lots of them. They are spread in a chaotic manner.”

Neither NASA nor Roscosmos, which is essentially Russia’s post-Soviet-Union-Era version of NASA, had addressed the holes as of the time this article was written to offer speculation as to how the holes may have ended up there. The only information about the holes online is all sourced back to the same information in the Space article. This is not uncommon for space agencies, however, as NASA and Roscosmos both have long-standing reputations for being very selective with what they disclose publicly, without going too deep into conspiracy theories.

After locating and documenting the mysterious holes, the spacewalk took another unexpected turn when Kononenko and Chub encountered a large blob of coolant which had broken free from the leaky radiator, posing a contamination risk.

“During the spacewalk, Kononenko and Chub inspected and photographed an external backup radiator on the Nauka multipurpose laboratory module, as well as isolated the radiator from Nauka’s cooling system,” a NASA press release said. “During the radiator inspection, a bubble of coolant liberated at the leak site and the crew wiped down their suits prior to continuing the spacewalk.”

The radiator was originally reported leaking on October 9 and was a backup radiator for another which is used to regulate temperature inside the ISS. Coolant supply for the backup radiator was cut off shortly before repairs were made, which is believed to be what led to the coolant bubble forming. According to Space, the bubble reportedly came close enough to Kononenko that one of his tethers became contaminated and had to be bagged and left outside the ISS after the spacewalk. Tethers are cables used to keep the astronauts attached to the orbiting space vessel rather than hurtling off into space (and certain death).

The two Russian astronauts reportedly gave their spacesuits a thorough wipe-down before they returned to the ISS and ended their spacewalk. Contamination risk by unknown microorganisms poses a much bigger threat in the vacuum of space than it would on Earth, according to information published by NASA, the National Institute of Health, and many others. These risks necessitate astronauts to sterilize their tools and suits before re-entering the spacecraft. 

“At the end of the spacewalk, before reentering the Poisk airlock, the two spacewalking cosmonauts as usual inspected the Roscosmos Orlan spacesuits and the tools used during the spacewalk to look for signs of coolant and wipe off any coolant as necessary,” NASA said. “The cosmonauts also wiped down their suits and tools as usual after repressurization to further reduce introduction of trace contaminates into the space station environment. Additional filtration will then be used inside the space station in order to quickly scrub the atmosphere of any remaining traces of contaminant.”

This is not the first time Roscosmos has reported holes drilled into the ISS. A Russian news agency accused a NASA astronaut of drilling holes into the ISS in 2021 due to a failed romantic relationship with another astronaut, though this was never confirmed. Another report of small holes in the ISS came earlier this year. Another report of a coolant leak from last December was caused by small meteorites, according to the Russians. In fact, there are many stories online about small holes in the ISS that go back years, many of them having to do with Russia. That is not to say the information is untrue, just a small caveat to what appears to be an ongoing problem.

Kononenko and Chub reportedly ended their spacewalk after seven hours and 41 minutes without any further complications. The Oct. 25 spacewalk was reportedly the sixth such walk in Kononenko’s career, a first for Chub and the 268th in the history of the ISS. The next spacewalk for the ISS, undertaken by NASA astronauts Loral O’Hara and Jasmin Moghbeli, was actually underway at the time this article was written. It began at 8:05 a.m. EDT Monday morning and was scheduled to last about six-and-a-half-hours.

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