NASA has announced that a “slow leak” has been detected on board the International Space Station – but there is no cause for alarm for the astronauts on board.
The leak was reported last night at 7pm EDT, while the astronauts were asleep (11pm local time on the station), when mission controllers noticed a reduction in pressure on the station. The astronauts were allowed to remain sleeping as the pressure loss was small, noted NASA.
In the morning, the crew worked with mission control to try and locate the leak. It now looks like it is coming from the orbital module from one of the docked Soyuz spacecraft on board the space station.
“The crew are healthy and safe with weeks of air left in the International Space Station reserves," NASA said in a statement.
And on Twitter they noted the crew was “in no danger and is actively working troubleshooting procedures.”
The US astronauts and Russian cosmonauts are now working with mission control to try and work out a fix for the problem. It has been temporarily taped up at the moment, with plans for more permanent patches soon, according to NASASpaceflight’s Chris Bergin.
The hole was likely created by some sort of micrometeoroid, although the exact cause is not yet known. It’s a very small hole though; if it continued leaking, the ISS wouldn’t run out of air for 18 days.
It also looks like the hole is not big enough to cause any problems with the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft. This will be used to return three of the crew back to Earth in a few months, but the orbital segment – where the leak is located – is discarded from Soyuz spacecraft before the crew passes through the atmosphere in the Descent Module.
Depressurization events like this on the ISS are a cause for concern, though. If a piece of debris is found to be heading in the general area of the ISS, the crew will get into the docked spacecraft and prepare to evacuate if the station is severely damaged. While this has happened several times, evacuation has never been necessary.
Smaller pieces of debris like micrometeoroids are a big problem though, as their tiny size (typically less than 2 millimeters) means they can’t be tracked. So there is always a risk they can hit the station and cause problems like this.
At the moment it looks like this leak has been contained, although there is still some fixing to do. It’s a gentle reminder though that orbiting at 27,000 kilometers per hour (17,000 miles per hour) above our heads, life in space can be somewhat risky at times.