In November of 1998, the first modules of the International Space Station (ISS) were launched into orbit, and the first crew arrived almost two years later. With almost twenty years of hosting astronauts from all over the world, the ISS holds the record for the longest continuous human presence in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). After all that time, the ISS is beginning to show the signs of age.
Back in August, the ISS crew reported there was a leak in the Zvezda module. By Sept. 29th, Roscosmos announced that the crew had found the source of the leak, but determined it was worse than previously thought. In the latest news, Roscomos announced on Wednesday (Oct. 14th) that the oxygen supply system has failed on a Russian segment of the ISS, but reassured everyone that the crew are not in danger.
The issue arose after three crew members of Expedition 64 – cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov (Commander) and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov (flight engineer 2), and NASA astronaut Kate Rubins (flight engineer 1) – arrived on the station. Once there, they joined NASA astronaut and Commander Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner, bringing the total crew to six.
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In addition, a Roscosmos spokesperson told the Agence France Presse (AFP) that a second oxygen supply system on the American segment of the station is operating normally. “Nothing threatens the security of the crew and the ISS,” they said, also assuring that repair work to fix the issue began only a day later – on Thursday, Oct. 15th.
Roscosmos has emphasized since the time that the leak was first discovered that it was not significant and posed no threat to the crew. In space, pressure losses are a constant issue, but this one presented a problem for two reasons. For one, the leak was found to be “beyond expected levels” and raised concerns that additional oxygen might need to be pumped in to make up for the loss.
Second, while it was known to be coming from the Zvezda module, the crews had a hard time detecting the precise location of the leak. However, the Roscosmos spokesperson said that the crew has found the exact source and that they would be receiving precise instructions from mission control to address the problem.
While this ongoing incident doesn’t present a threat to the lives of the crew or jeopardize operations aboard the station, it does underscore the fact that the ISS’ is getting on in years. These sentiments were echoed by Gennady Padalka, the Russian cosmonaut that holds the world record for most days spent in space, who was quoted by the RIA Novosti news agency.
“All modules of the Russian segment are exhausted,” he said, and added that the equipment – which was designed to be used for 15 years – has been in continuous operation for twenty. Luckily, Roscosmos is planning on launching new segments for the ISS in the near future that could pick up the slack from Zvezda and other aging modules.
This is the downside of having facilities in space for extended periods of time, which is that they will not last indefinitely and will have to be deorbited before serious issues occur. At present, NASA, Roscomos, the ESA, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), and JAXA have all extended their participation with ISS mission to 2024. It is even expected that the station may remain in operation until 2030.
But sooner or later, the ISS will go the way of the Salyuts, Skylab, Mir, and every other facility that has ever orbited the Earth. But with two decades of service under its belt, no one could possibly say that it hasn’t had a rich life and an incredible journey! And that day will not come for a long time yet, so we can expect to hear plenty more about missions and experimetns conducting within her many modules and segments!
Further Reading: Agence France Presse