- A minor leak has developed on the International Space Station, and NASA officials are still trying to figure out exactly where it is.
- US astronauts spent the weekend isolated in the Russian segment of the spacecraft as NASA monitored different sections for possible leaks.
- NASA says it will spend this week working on isolating the problem.
Late last week NASA revealed that the astronauts aboard the International Space Station would be isolating themselves in the Russian side of the ISS for the weekend. This wasn’t some kind of mini space vacation or anything, but it was an attempt to figure out which specific section of the space station was leaking atmosphere at a greater rate than normal.
The hatches between the sections were closed off, allowing the scientists to closely monitor the air loss in different parts of the spacecraft. This, it was thought, would answer the burning question of where the ISS had sprung a leak. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to have done so.
After spending the weekend away from their orbiting “home,” the US astronauts ended up spending an additional day in the Russian segment of the ISS so that more monitoring could be done. NASA noted in a press release that “Mission controllers are continuing their leak detection work today to collect more data,” suggesting that the root of the problem had yet to be identified.
In an update posted on Tuesday, NASA revealed that the US astronauts were allowed to unseal the hatches on their side of the space station, fire up their life support systems, and return to normal operations. That’s good news, but it also came with the note that mission control had yet to identify where the leak was coming from.
Mission control will study the test data this week in an effort to determine the source of a cabin air leak detected in September of 2019. The rate is still well within segment specifications and presents no danger to the crew or the space station. The station’s atmosphere is maintained at a pressure comfortable for the crew members, and a tiny bit of that air leaks over time, requiring routine repressurization from nitrogen tanks delivered on cargo resupply missions.
Breathable air is obviously vitally important to the crew of the space station, and a leak is not great news. However, the space station does leak small amounts of air regularly, and a slight increase in the rate of leaking isn’t necessarily a cause for panic. At present, the rate of the leaking doesn’t pose a threat to the crew, which is great news, but NASA would surely love to hunt down the source sooner rather than later.
The International Space Station is aging gracefully, having spent a couple of decades in space and growing slowly over time with new modules and updated hardware. It’s expected to last at least until 2030, and probably longer, so maintenance chores like finding leaks are just part of life aboard the orbiting laboratory.