Houston, TX – The International Space Station has sprung “a small air leak”, so a NASA astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts will be hunkering down August 21-24 in hopes of finding and repairing it.
The ISS is not perfectly sealed and always leaks a small bit of air. According to NASA, the rate of air loss aboard the orbiting laboratory has “slightly increased” and the three men living aboard the station will need to figure out why. The American and Russian space agencies will be “working a plan to isolate, identify, and potentially repair the source”.
The leak is still within segment specifications and presents no immediate danger to the crew or the space station. To find the source of the leak, astronauts and mission controllers plan to shut all of the space station’s hatches by Friday and monitor the air pressure of each through the weekend. The US and Russian specialists expect preliminary results should be available for review by the end of next week.
NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and his crew mates, Ivan Vagner and Anatoly Ivanishin, will spend the weekend huddled inside the station’s Zvezda service module. The Soyuz MS-16 spaceship, which the three-person crew rode to the space station in April and can return them back to Earth in the event of an emergency, is attached to the Russian module. The service module was the first livable piece of the space station, launched nearly 20 years ago, so NASA said the crew “will have plenty of room” for their surprise weekend stay inside it.
The leak was first spotted in September 2019, but it did not interfere with normal operations. Nor was the rate of air loss accelerating or high enough to cause alarm; as such, NASA monitored the situation and focused on other station priorities before addressing the leak.
The last few months were very busy at the station. NASA and SpaceX completed the first crewed commercial mission to the orbiting lab, known as Demo-2, and agency astronauts finished several complex spacewalks to repair a broken dark-matter detector and to upgrade batteries for the station. The batteries will be needed to power the station through its planned end of life in 2025, which could be extended to 2028 or later if all partners agree.
“Now that we have a relatively quiet period in the operations — spacewalks, vehicle traffic, additional crew members can all result in fluctuations — the crew will be shutting the hatches to every single module so the ground can monitor each module’s pressure to further isolate the source”, says NASA spokesman Dan Huot. “It’s the most effective means we have of finding the leak, as it is so small,” he added. “We don’t know definitively if the leak is in the U.S. or Russian segment, and won’t until we’re able to review the data from this weekend’s tests.”
Astronauts deal with leak simulations during training for their stays on the space station, which typically are about six months long. In terms of crew time and disruption, NASA said there should be minimal changes to their schedule. Only NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy has personal items outside of the Russian segment, as his sleeping quarters are housed in the Harmony module of the orbiting lab.
Leaks pop up from time to time on the ISS, but one leak in 2018 got much more attention than the others. At the time, astronauts traced a leak on board the ISS to a small hole inside a visiting Russian Soyuz capsule docked to the ISS. In August 2018, a small air leak was discovered in the spacecraft and Expedition 56 crew members eventually found an 0.08-inch (about two millimeters) wide hole in the Soyuz hull. Epoxy was used to resolve the issue.
There have been other minor air leak events over the history of the station, whose first modules were sent into space in 1998. In November 2004, NASA astronaut Michael Foale found a small air leak that had been puzzling controllers for three weeks. He found the leak at a main window of the Destiny laboratory, in a flexible cable called a vacuum jumper. The cable normally was used to assist with equalizing air pressure in the window, which had several panes. But Foale spotted signs of a leak in the area where the hose connected with a steel harness at the window’s edge.
The current crew have the Soyuz spaceship in the event an urgent or quick escape is required, though it is highly unlikely to be needed.
About The Video…
The International Space Station is the largest man made object in space. It was built in pieces and then launched into space and assembled in orbit. In this 2018 Jared Owen animation, we highlight some background on the ISS and each module in the order that it was assembled.