Captain Rick: The International Space Station has experienced a failure in one of two cooling systems. NASA describes the situation as “urgent” but not “life threatening”. Its crew of 6 might have to evacuate if cooling capacity is not restored soon.
The ISS is the size of a football field, orbiting earth at 265 miles up, traveling at a speed of 17,000 mph. As an avid follower of the ISS since its first components were launched into orbit by a NASA Space Shuttle in 1998, I enjoy watching it pass over my home in Gilbert, Arizona every chance I get. The ISS is only visible during a short time frame before sunrise or after sunset when the sky is dark and the ISS is illuminated by the sun’s rays. A good sighting only happens once or twice a month for most locations on earth that lie within 55 degrees north and south of the equator. Last evening, the ISS’s rare pass overhead carried special significance. As I watched it zoom across the sky and vanish into earths shadow four minutes later, I realized that on board were six crew members that were facing a serious situation.
Why does the ISS need cooling when the temp in space runs –454F (-270C)?
The International Space Station, with an acre of solar panels, generates between 75 and 90 kilowatts of power. This power is used by the ISS’s systems, from life support, to storage freezers, to various lab experiments that are dotted throughout the interior. This generates a lot of waste heat — heat that has to be vented into space. To do this, the ISS has a cooling system — essentially a pump, a radiator, and some pipes filled with ammonia — that ferries heat from inside to outside, where the chills of outer space (-270 Celsius or -454 Fahrenheit) quickly dispose of the heat.
There are two cooling loops — Loop-A and Loop-B — and for some reason Loop-A failed late on Wednesday. Usually both systems work in concert to keep the ISS and its various systems cooled, but now Loop-B must bear all of the load. To compensate, some non-critical systems and science experiments (the Japanese Kibo lab, the European Columbus lab) have been disabled. Life support, storage freezers, and other systems that are of vital importance are still up and running.
What is being done to fix this urgent problem?
NASA is currently working around the clock to determine what’s wrong with Loop-A, and how to fix it. So far, it sounds like a flow control valve malfunctioned, causing an anomalous temperature imbalance, which triggered an automatic shutdown when the system reached a preset threshold temperature. The fix might be as simple as uploading some new management software for the valve, or it may require a risky spacewalk to replace a component. Spacewalks have been banned for a while due to 2 cups of water leaking into the helmet of a previous spacewalker.
What if the problem can not be fixed with available parts onboard or via a software patch?
The worst-case scenario is that Loop-B fails before they can fix Loop-A: this would require evacuation of the 6 crew members on board. There are always enough Soyuz capsules attached to the ISS to ensure that everyone on board has a ride back to Earth. I have hope that the many great minds working on this problem will find a fix and save the great works of the International Space Station. I see the ISS as one of the few expenditures of big money that has been constructive in bringing nations together for a great common research cause (about $150 billion so far, including…NASA: $70 billon, Russia: $12 billon, Europe: $5 billion, Japan: $5 billion, Canada: $2 billion).
Updates on this urgent problem:
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