Emerging Tech

Space Station alert as crew forced to patch hole in docked spacecraft

International Space Station
NASA

Crew members aboard the International Space Station (ISS) have had to patch a hole in the shell of a docked spacecraft following a possible collision with a meteorite fragment.

Fortunately for the six-person crew, the situation on Thursday, August 30, never descended into scenes reminiscent of the 2013 Hollywood blockbuster Gravity in which a debris collision caused untold chaos. But with a drop in cabin pressure detected, it was vital for the incident to be dealt with as quickly as possible.

The latest report from NASA describes the space station’s cabin pressure as “holding steady” after the Expedition 56 crew carried out repair work on the hole, which was found on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft that docked with the ISS a couple of months ago.

NASA said that after several hours of investigations on Thursday, the crew was able to isolate the leak to a hole about two millimeters in diameter in the upper section of the spacecraft.

Flight controllers at Mission Control centers in Houston and Moscow worked together with the crew to oversee the repair, which involved Soyuz commander Sergey Prokopyev using thermo-resistant tape to plug the hole. A more robust repair is currently under consideration.

NASA insisted that the crew was never in any danger, although flight controllers are still monitoring pressure trends inside the space station to confirm the effectiveness of the repair. All station systems are reported to be stable and the crew is planning to return to its regular schedule of work on Friday.

What caused it?

Investigations are now underway to try to determine what caused the hole. There’s speculation that it may have been the result of a tiny piece of space rock or other debris colliding with the station. Its small size would have made it impossible for the space station’s systems to have detected its approach.

With the ISS traveling at speeds of around 17,500 mph, an impact can pose a serious threat to the operation of the station as well as to its crew. The main structure of the space station has so-called “orbital debris shields” in place to keep it safe from collisions with smaller particles, but the docked capsule appears to be fitted with less effective shielding, if it has any at all.

Besides rocks and other natural space matter, man-made space debris is also a problem for the ISS and other satellites orbiting Earth. NASA has a system in place to monitor larger pieces that could cause catastrophic damage in the event of a collision. The technology enables ground control to track hazardous debris, and if needed, the space station‘s thrusters can be used to take it away from danger.

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