The International Space Station (ISS), in Earth orbit at hundreds of kilometres altitude, is not perfectly airtight. Every day, the cabin loses a minute amount of air, monitored carefully so that a liveable atmospheric pressure can be maintained, and to identify leaks.
Now the latter has come to pass, just two years after the last leak. The rate of air loss on the station has risen above a level that can be explained by the normal ISS day-to-day, according to a NASA blog post.
Mission control first noticed something awry in September of 2019, but the increase in air leakage was slight – not enough to cause serious concern. Now that rate has increased, so they’re buckling in to find out where the extra air is escaping.
The current ISS crew are not in any danger, but NASA astronaut Commander Chris Cassidy and Roscosmos cosmonauts Ivan Vagner and Anatoly Ivanishin will have to hole up in the Zvezda Service Module for the weekend while mission control searches for the source of the leak.
“All the space station hatches will be closed this weekend so mission controllers can carefully monitor the air pressure in each module,” NASA’s Mark Garcia wrote. “The test presents no safety concern for the crew. The test should determine which module is experiencing a higher-than-normal leak rate.”
The last leak on the ISS took place two years ago, identified by ground control at 23:00 UTC (19:00 EDT) on 29 August 2018. At that time, the same measures were taken – the crew moved to the Russian segment, and the space station modules were sealed off and their atmospheric pressure examined.
This procedure narrowed down the leak to the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft, which was temporarily attached to the Rassvet module of the ISS at the time. It was traced to a small, two-millimetre hole with drill tracks next to it, leading to speculation that it was caused by a manufacturing mistake. But, although Roscosmos has concluded its investigation, the source of the hole has not been revealed.
An earlier leak was identified and patched in 2004, in a vacuum jumper cable used to equalise air pressure across a window in the Destiny laboratory module.
Tracking down such leaks can be challenging because of the normal air pressure fluctuations inside the space station. In addition to the normal leak rate, the pressure also changes due to temperature fluctuations, as well as routine station operations, such as spacewalks and the arrival and departure of resupply spacecraft.
During their weekend in the Zvezda module, the ISS crew will continue their normal duties as much as they are able. Once the leak has been traced to a specific module, the crew will be able to perform a more granular search to find the precise source.
“The US and Russian specialists expect preliminary results should be available for review by the end of next week,” Garcia wrote.
June 17, 2020 | 1:46pm
The International Space Station is an incredibly high-tech spacecraft. It’s packed with advanced instruments and the fact that it’s basically a floating science lab should tell you all you need to know about how important it is to NASA, the European Space Agency, and Russia’s Roscosmos. But, like any machine, it needs some love every now and then, and a couple of spacewalks will provide the ISS with some much-needed upgrades.
NASA just released a schedule for its upcoming spacewalks. The first will take place on June 26th and the other will happen on July 1st. During both excursions, astronauts will be tasked with swapping out old and outdated batteries with new, higher-capacity batteries. Both spacewalks will be conducted by NASA astronauts Chris Cassidy and Robert Behnken.
The International Space Station uses a significant amount of power, and it’s equipped with a solar power array to generate that power. However, because the space station completes over a dozen trips around the Earth every single day, the spacecraft is often shrouded in the shadow cast by our planet.
During those dark moments, the space station maintains its steady power supply by using juice that is saved in its batteries. The old, outdated nickel-hydrogen batteries are in need of replacement, and work on the project began three years ago. It takes several spacewalks to replace the many batteries affixed to the exterior of the ISS with the new lithium-ion versions.
“The spacewalking astronauts will replace aging nickel-hydrogen batteries for one of two power channels on the far starboard truss (S6 Truss) of the station with new lithium-ion batteries that arrived to the station on a Japanese cargo ship last month. The battery replacement work is the culmination of power upgrade spacewalks that began in January 2017.”
Ensuring that the space station has a fully-functional power system is crucial not only to the science being conducted there but also to the wellbeing of the astronauts that live there. The ISS, which has been orbiting Earth since the late 1990s, still has plenty of life left in it thanks to regular upgrades and maintenance.
At present, it’s expected that the International Space Station will continue to operate and host astronauts through at least 2030. As is often the case when it comes to budgets, the space station may see life beyond that point as well, depending on how things shake out.
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