NASA ground controllers received some disturbing readings from the International Space Station on Wednesday - air pressure inside the craft was falling.
That’s not a good sign when you're 220 miles up in space.
The ISS crew were asleep at the time, but ground control opted not to mention it to them, since the pressure drop was slight and the astronauts work long days in difficult conditions and need their sleep. But in the morning the crew started to hunt around for the problem.
“The leak has been isolated to a hole about two millimeters in diameter in the orbital compartment, or upper section, of the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft attached to the Rassvet module of the Russian segment,” NASA said in an update. "This is a section of the Soyuz that does not return to Earth."
It’s not known what cause the puncture in the spacecraft’s skin. It could be damage from flying debris or a micrometeorite – measuring between 50 µm and 2 mm - that occasionally hits the space station. Or it could just be a weak spot in the Soyuz that just let go. The former is much more likely.
And so NASA did what pretty much all of us do when faced with a hole in something – stuck a bit of tape on it. This being NASA of course, it is no ordinary tape.
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Kapton is amazing stuff: It’s capable of retaining its stickiness in temperatures ranging from −269 to +400 celsius (−452 to 752 fahrenheit in Freedom Units) and has a high tensile strength. Developed in the late 1960s, Kapton is found on most NASA craft in one form or another and it’s going to be used to shield the James Webb Space Telescope from the Sun when the instrument finally gets into space. You can buy it online for $10 a roll.
The tape has cut the atmospheric leak down to virtually nothing and the crew are looking at a longer-term fix, although the problem will go away soon. Soyuz MS-09 wasn't scheduled to return to Earth, instead it was going to be loaded up with trash, deorbited and sent back to Earth on a trajectory that would have seen it destroyed by air compression in the atmosphere.
If the leak can’t be fixed it’s likely NASA will simply reschedule some of its ISS operations, load up the Soyuz early and get rid of the thing. ®