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Why The Space Station Leak Is A Problem

May 11, 13 Why The Space Station Leak Is A Problem

Fires in outer space are bad news. For starters containing the fire can be difficult, not to mention that you can’t exactly run away and “leave the building.” More worrying, though, is on manned spacecraft, like the International Space Station (ISS), oxygen is stored on board to maintain its Earth-like atmosphere.

Pure oxygen is highly flammable, making small sparks and heat fluctuations potential hazards. To minimize these dangers, electronics and other systems have cooling systems.

On the ISS, a series of ammonia recycling systems pump the liquid through various systems of the vessel to cool critical components. But should the cooling systems fail, temperature could spike, leading to fires. So repairing failed cooling systems is vital, otherwise some systems would need to be shut down.

For this reason, the members of the ISS are preparing for a space walk to repair an ammonia leak. Crewmembers noted the ejection of small white flakes into space.

“Good Morning, Earth! Big change in plans, spacewalk tomorrow, Chris Cassidy and Tom Marshburn are getting suits and airlock ready. Cool!” said Commander Chris Hadfield of the Canadian Space Program in a statement. “The whole team is ticking like clockwork, readying for tomorrow,” he tweeted a short time later. “I am so proud to be Commander of this crew. Such great, capable, fun people.”

NASA reports that the crew is not in immediate danger, as they feel the leak can be repaired at least temporarily. Just in case, cooling systems are being rerouted to cover the ammonia deficit. Those living on the ISS have faced this before; a similar leak was discovered and fixed last November. It is not yet clear if this leak is related to that previous incident.

Image Credit: Keith Tarrier / Shutterstock

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About 

John P. Millis, Ph.D., is professor of physics and astronomy at Anderson University, in Anderson Indiana. He teaches a wide variety of courses while maintaining an active research program in high energy astrophysics.

His research focus is on pulsars, pulsar wind nebulae, and supernova remnants. Using the VERITAS gamma-ray observatory in southern Arizona, he studies the very high energy radiation from these dynamic sources to extract information about their formation and emission mechanisms. Dr. John received his B.S. in physics at Purdue University and remained there for the completion of his Ph.D., where he focused on High Energy Astrophysics. When not teaching or writing about physics and space, Dr. John enjoys spending time with his family, tickling the keys on his piano and playing a wide variety of sports.

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