NASA begins search for mystery air leak on the space station

NASA is about to begin work tracking down an air leak on the International Space Station (ISS).

The leak was first noticed in September 2019 but was so inconsequential that fixing it wasn’t a priority. But recently the rate of leakage has increased, prompting the space agency to take action.

It means that during this weekend, the station’s three crew members will stay inside Russia’s Zvezda service module while specialists monitor the air pressure in other parts of the orbiting outpost in a bid to find the location of the leak.

NASA stressed that the leak poses no threat to the safety of Expedition 63 members Chris Cassidy, Ivan Vagner, and Anatoly Ivanishin, or to the integrity of the space station.

NASA

In an update posted on its website on Thursday, August 20, the agency said that while the station’s atmosphere is kept at a constant pressure comfortable for the crew, a tiny bit of air is always leaking, resulting in routine repressurization from nitrogen tanks delivered on cargo resupply missions.

NASA added that as pressurization levels can be affected by regular ISS operations such as spacewalks and spacecraft visits, it has taken time to gather all of the necessary data to fully understand the leak’s behavior.

“All the space station hatches will be closed this weekend so mission controllers can carefully monitor the air pressure in each module,” NASA said. “The test presents no safety concern for the crew. The test should determine which module is experiencing a higher-than-normal leak rate. The U.S. and Russian specialists expect preliminary results should be available for review by the end of next week.”

The three crew members are unlikely to feel cooped up in their restricted living quarters as the Russian module provided the living space for the station’s earliest inhabitants when the Expedition 1 crew arrived at the station in 2000. A bit of extra space for Cassidy, Vagner, and Ivanishin is also available via the Poisk mini-research module and the Soyuz MS-16 crew capsule.

The current issue brings to mind a similar though more serious incident in August 2018 when the station suffered a sudden drop in pressure. It was put down to a 2-millimeter hole in the upper section of the docked Russian Soyuz capsule. While there was some talk of sabotage, it was also suggested the hole may have occurred during the capsule’s production, or been caused by a tiny piece of space rock or other debris striking the ISS as it orbited Earth 250 miles up.

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