Helmet leakage forces NASA to halt space travel

During an extravehicular activity (EVA) on the International Space Station (ISS) on March 23, astronaut Matthias Maurer of the European Space Agency (ESA) was startled by a water leak inside his helmet. To investigate the causes of the incident, NASA announced that all non-emergency space missions had been temporarily suspended.

European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Matthias Maurer seen through the helmet camera by NASA astronaut Raja Chari during a spacewalk taken on March 23, 2022. That day, a water leak was noticed in his own helmet. Image: NASA Television

At a news conference Tuesday (17), the U.S. space agency said it would conduct a thorough inspection of the Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) spacesuits, which are the clothing and accessories used during functions performed outside the ISS.

It’s just that the helmet Maurer wore will not return to Earth until July, so space travel that is not extremely urgent (for emergency repairs in the orbital laboratory, for example) will take several months to go.

Maurer reported about 20 to 25 inches of water in a very thin layer of the helmet that covered the inside surface of the accessory. “The suit generates a bit of water at times, but that was a little beyond what our normal experience faces,” said Dana Weigel, deputy program manager for the ISS at Johnson Space Center in the United States. Nasa. “It is precisely the amount of water that caught our attention. »

She said the agency would analyze water samples and filters from the spacesuit as part of the ongoing investigation. “We are looking for clear signs of pollution, dirt or something else. »

A serious incident with water leakage suspended EVAs in 2013

This is the second time that space travel has been suspended due to an unexpected water leak. In July 2013, however, the situation was much more serious.

At the time, ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano’s face was almost completely submerged in bulging water inside his helmet. About an hour after he began working on a spacewalk with NASA’s Chris Cassidy, he reported to the mission control what happened and the activity stopped. Parmitano safely came out of the incident.

ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano during an ISS spacewalk on July 16, 2013, which was interrupted when he reported water inside his helmet. Image: NASA

As a result, NASA suspended all space travel at the time in the middle of a study that culminated in a report completed nine months later, which listed several factors that could be changed to avoid future problems. .

The report identified the technical cause as “inorganic materials causing blockage of drum holes” in an EMU water separator. This in turn caused the water to overflow through a vent cannula.

“A water filtration plant at Johnson [Centro Espacial] had not been administered for silica, “read a document authored by NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) in April 2017.” As a result, silica-charged water was used in the processing of in-flight hardware filters, which were later used in four spacesuits in orbit.

The agency investigated the silica situation and also made backups to astronauts in the event of a leak. As of 2014, astronauts used an “absorbent pad” on the back of their helmets to “suck up” excess water. In addition, a breathing tube was inserted into the helmet, the water of which covered the astronaut’s face.

Since these measures were implemented, the water leak that has attracted the most attention is the recent Maurer incident.

NASA sends extra pillows for any emergency space hike

“We have a very thin type of absorbent pads that we can put inside the helmet,” Weigel said. “One is on the back of the crew’s helmet, and the other is a kind of headband that goes up over the head. It’s like a bandana, but would be attached to the inner bubble layer of the helmet. And that would provide some mitigation.

Some of the extra cushions Weigel mentioned were flown to the ISS aboard SpaceX’s Crew-4 mission, and 16 more will be sent this Thursday (19) by Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft.

Weigel pointed out that these extra pads represent a contingency plan in case astronauts need to fix something in space before the study is complete.

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