Oxygen Is Leaking Out of the International Space Station 

NASA has narrowed the source of the leak to a module that provides life support.

It seems like the premise for another space survival movie. Actually, oxygen is a key plot element for almost every film about space: The Martian, Interstellar, Gravity. People at NASA haven't seen these movies, apparently. 

For over a year, oxygen has been slowly depleting inside the International Space Station (ISS), and astronauts couldn’t find its source.

Back in August, NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and his Russian counterparts, cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner, conducted leak tests in every module attached to the space station. Their results came out negative for the modules they tested.

That left two other modules that weren’t tested, and these modules were the ones installed by Russia. Astronauts now think the leaks are coming from those places.

Leaking Module Provides Crucial Life Support

NASA has narrowed the source of the elusive leak on the space station to two Russian modules, one of which provides crucial life support. 

The Poisk Mini-Research Module 2 serves as a port for docking spacecraft. It is also where the crew prepares for spacewalks. 

The other Russian module is the Zvezda Service Module. It provides life support for the Russian side of the ISS. This module also houses the cosmonauts’ sleeping quarters, dining room, refrigerator-freezer, and bathroom.


What is the purpose of the ISS Life Support?

The life support module is considered the heart of the International Space Station. It does the following functions:

  • Maintains temperature and humidity
  • Maintains total pressure
  • Produces oxygen
  • Removes carbon dioxide
  • Filters particles and microbes
  • Removes volatile organic gases (farts)
  • Distributes cabin air
  • Recycles wastewater
  • Stores and distributes potable water
  • Uses recycled water to produce oxygen

“With the crew living and working in these modules, it was impossible to achieve the proper environmental conditions necessary for this test,” NASA spokesman Daniel Huot told Business Insider.


Crew aboard the ISS are safe

When NASA detected the leak in 2019, it didn’t consider it a major problem, hence, detecting the leak was not a priority. It was only after the leak increased in September 2019 when NASA scheduled a series of tests aboard the station. The latest test was conducted in August 2020. 

Now that they have narrowed the possible sources of the leaks, NASA and its Russian counterpart Roscosmos will schedule another leak test in the two Russian modules. 

NASA and Roscosmos regularly send up oxygen to the ISS, which is why the crew members abroad the station will not suffocate anytime soon. 

It is not the first time a leak was detected in the ISS. In 2018, crew members discovered an air leak escaping from two drill marks inside the Russian spacecraft Soyuz, which is attached to the ISS. An investigation back on Earth tried to find out whether it was an attempt of sabotage. 

Photo by NASA.
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Apparently, the 2018 hole was a manufacturing defect that someone tried to cover up by filling the hole with paint. The paint peeled off before the spacecraft reached the space station. 

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