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Small air leak on space station traced to Russian service module

The International Space Station, photographed by Expedition 56 crewmembers from a Soyuz spacecraft in October 2018. NASA astronauts Andrew Feustel and Ricky Arnold and Roscosmos cosmonaut Oleg Artemyev executed a flyaround of the orbiting laboratory to take pictures of the station before returning home after spending 197 days in space. 
The International Space Station, photographed by Expedition 56 crewmembers from a Soyuz spacecraft in October 2018. NASA astronauts Andrew Feustel and Ricky Arnold and Roscosmos cosmonaut Oleg Artemyev executed a flyaround of the orbiting laboratory to take pictures of the station before returning home after spending 197 days in space. 
(Image: © NASA/Roscosmos)

The case of the small air leak on the International Space Station may be nearly cracked.

Investigators have traced the source of the leak to the "main work area" of the Zvezda Service Module, the heart of the Russian part of the station, NASA officials announced today (Sept. 29).

"Additional work is underway to precisely locate the source of the leak," agency officials wrote in an update today. "The leak, which has been investigated for several weeks, poses no immediate danger to the crew at the current leak rate and only a slight deviation to the crew’s schedule."

In photos: The Expedition 63 mission to the International Space Station

That deviation included a wakeup call last night for the three astronauts living aboard the orbiting lab, NASA's Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner. The trio collected data with an ultrasound leak detector throughout the Russian segment of the station, augmenting measurements previously made in the U.S. portion, NASA officials said.

When the spaceflyers began their work, it looked like the leak had grown. But the apparent increase "has since been attributed to a temporary temperature change aboard the station, with the overall rate of leak remaining unchanged," NASA officials wrote in the statement.

The leak is causing an atmospheric pressure decrease of 1 millimeter every 8 hours, officials with Roscosmos, the Russian federal space agency, said via Twitter this morning, also stressing that Cassidy, Ivanishin and Vagner remain safe.

The overnight checks are done, the hatches between the U.S. and Russian segments are open again and normal activities have resumed aboard the station, NASA officials said in their update.

The International Space Station is not completely airtight. The orbiting complex continuously loses tiny amounts of gas to space and is regularly repressurized using nitrogen tanks brought up by cargo spacecraft. 

In September 2019, station managers noticed a slight uptick in that normal background rate. It took a while to characterize the leak fully, because crewmembers and station managers were occupied with spacewalks, spacecraft arrivals and departures, and other big-ticket orbital activities, NASA officials have said. The leak investigation didn't really get going until last month.

There are lots more big-ticket activities coming up. NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov will launch to the station aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft on Oct. 14, and four more crewmembers are scheduled to head toward the orbiting lab aboard SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule on Oct. 31. And Cassidy, Ivanishin and Vagner will return to Earth aboard a Soyuz in October, ending their six-month orbital stay. 

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook. 

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  • Lovethrust
    Once is worrying, especially when Russia very suspiciously refuses to share the results of their investigation. Now we have a second incident which is VERY worrisome!
    I don’t trust Russia to come clean on this one either.
    Reply
  • cbaines
    Well, when ISS starts springing leaks it may be time to start work on ISS II. Its had a good run but its getting a bit dated. For the rest of its useful life it can be a construction shack for the building of something much bigger that has civilian tourist quarters in addition to science labs.
    Reply
  • Geomartian
    I guess getting the Russians to abandon the ISS was part of the offensive.

    The continuing glitches in the full deployment of the Starlink minefield and blockade are just bad luck.

    How many Starlink satellites are now sleeping with the fishes in the Pacific Ocean?

    Pareidolia, sometimes the pattern which connects the dots really isn’t there.

    Well, I don’t think there is any question about it. It can only be attributable to human error. This sort of thing has cropped up before, and it has always been due to human error.
    Reply