Astronauts Safely Back inside US Space Station Segment after False Ammonia Leak Alarm

Nearly twelve hours after the threat of a leak of toxic ammonia forced the crew into a middle of the night evacuation from the US side of the International Space Station this morning (Jan. 14) and a hatch closure, top level managers from the partner space agencies gave the all clear and allowed the astronauts and cosmonauts to reopen access to the American portion of the orbiting outpost.

The six person crew hailing from the US, Italy and Russia were allowed to open the sealed hatch to the U.S. segment later this afternoon after it was determined that the ammonia leak was quite fortunately a false alarm.

No ammonia leak was actually detected. But the crew and mission control had to shut down some non essential station systems on the US segment in the interim.

All the Expedition 42 crew members were safe and in good health and never in danger, reported NASA.

The station crews and mission control teams must constantly be prepared and train for the unexpected and how to deal with potential emergencies, such as today’s threat of a serious chemical leak.

After a thorough review of the situation by the International Space Station mission management team, the crew were given the OK by flight controllers to head back.

They returned inside at 3:05 p.m. EST. Taking no chances, they wore protective masks and sampled the cabin atmosphere and reported no indications of any ammonia.

Fears that a leak had been detected resulted from the sounding of an alarm at around 4 a.m. EST.

The alarm forced Expedition 42 station commander Barry Wilmore and Flight Engineer Terry Virts of NASA and Flight Engineer Samantha Cristoforetti of the European Space Agency to don protective gas masks and move quickly into the Russian segment, sealing the hatch behind them to the US segment.

Inside the Russian segment, they joined the remainder of Expedition 42, namely cosmonauts Aleksandr Samokutyayev, Yelena Serova, and Anton Shkaplerov from Russia, also living and working aboard the ISS and rounding out the crew of four men and two women.

he International Space Station as seen by the departing STS-134 crew aboard space shuttle Endeavour in May 2011. Credit: NASA
The International Space Station as seen by the departing STS-134 crew aboard space shuttle Endeavour in May 2011. US segment on top in this view. Credit: NASA

“The alarm is part of the environmental systems software on the station designed to monitor the cabin’s atmosphere. At the same time, the station’s protection software shut down one of two redundant cooling loops (Thermal Control System Loop B),” NASA said in an update.

Ammonia is a toxic substance used as a coolant in the stations complex cooling system that is an essential requirement to continued operation of the station.

Ammonia is a gas at room temperature that is extremely dangerous to inhale or when it comes in contact with skin, eyes and internal organs.

Precautions must be taken if a leak is feared in a confined space such as the ISS. It has about the same habitable volume as a four bedroom house.

As a professional chemist, I’ve worked frequently with ammonia in research and development labs and manufacturing plants and know the dangers firsthand. It can cause severe burns and irritations and worse.

There have been prior ammonia leaks aboard the ISS facility that forced a partial evacuation similar to today’s incident.

The ISS has been continuously occupied by humans for 15 years.

In the case of a life threatening emergency, the crew can rapidly abandon the station aboard the two docked Russian Soyuz capsules. They hold three persons each and serve as lifeboats.

Fortunately, the perceived ammonia leak this morning was not real and apparently was caused by a false alarm.

“This morning’s alarm is suspected to have been caused by a transient error message in one of the station’s computer relay systems, called a multiplexer-demultiplexer. A subsequent action to turn that relay box off and back on cleared the error message and the relay box is reported by flight controllers to be in good operating condition,” according to a NASA statement.

“Meanwhile, flight controllers are continuing to analyze data in an effort to determine what triggered the alarm that set today’s actions in motion.”

“Work to reactivate cooling loop B on the station will continue throughout the night and into the day Thursday. The crew members are expected to resume a normal complement of research activities on Thursday as well.”

The SpaceX Dragon is attached to the Harmony module. Credit: NASA TV
This view shows the US side of the ISS that was evacuated today, Jan. 14, 2015, by the crew due to possible ammonia leak. The SpaceX CRS-5 Dragon is attached to the Harmony module. Credit: NASA TV

The evacuation came just two days after a commercial SpaceX Dragon cargo freighter successfully rendezvoused and berthed at the station on Monday, Jan. 12.

The crew had just opened the hatch to Dragon and begun unloading the goodies stored aboard.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

ISS Expedition 42. Credit: NASA/ESA/Roscosmos
ISS Expedition 42. Credit: NASA/ESA/Roscosmos

Ammonia Leak Alarm on the ISS Forces Evacuation of US Side, Crew Safe

Breaking News: A possible ammonia leak aboard the US side of the International Space Station (ISS) has forced a partial evacuation of the entire crew to the Russian side earlier this morning, Wednesday, Jan. 14.

All six crew members from the US, Italy and Russia are safe and in good shape at this time, says NASA and Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency.

Hatches between the US and Russian segments were sealed shut, pending further analysis.

Read my late day update – here.

Mission controllers are in the process of assessing whether it’s a real leak or a false alarm due to a faulty sensor or a computer problem. It’s not completely clear at this time.

The latest indications at 11 a.m. EST, Jan. 14, are that it may be a false alarm, says NASA.

“The security of a crew was guaranteed thanks to correct actions of the cosmonauts, astronauts and the crew of the Mission control centres in Moscow and Houston. Further plan of actions in the US modules must be prepared in Houston,” according to Roscosmos.

“For now NASA colleagues are analyzing situation”, – noted the head of Russian Mission Control Centre Maxim Matushin

Ammonia is a toxic substance used as a coolant in the stations complex cooling system that is an essential requirement to continued operation of the station.

There have been prior ammonia leaks aboard the ISS facility.

NASA announced that an alarm sounded in the US segment at about 4 a.m. EST. indicating a possible ammonia leak. As a result, all six Expedition 42 astronauts and cosmonauts evacuated the US segment.

“Flight controllers in Mission Control at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston saw an increase in pressure in the station’s water loop for thermal control system B then later saw a cabin pressure increase that could be indicative of an ammonia leak in the worst case scenario,” according to a NASA announcement.

Therefore as a precaution after the alarm sounded earlier today, the crew was directed to isolate themselves in the Russian segment this morning while teams are evaluating the situation. The crew powered down non-essential equipment in the U.S. segment of the station according to established procedures, said NASA.

“In an exchange at 7:02 a.m. with Expedition 42 Commander Barry Wilmore of NASA, spacecraft communicator James Kelly said flight controllers were analyzing their data but said it is not yet known if the alarm was actually triggered by a leak or whether the situation was caused by a faulty sensor or by a problem in a computer relay box that sends data and commands to various systems on the station.”

The evacuation comes just two days after a commercial SpaceX Dragon cargo freighter successfully rendezvoused and berthed at the station on Monday, Jan. 11.

The SpaceX Dragon is attached to the Harmony module. Credit: NASA TV
This view shows the US side of the ISS that was evacuated today, Jan. 14, 2015, by the crew due to possible ammonia leak. The SpaceX CRS-5 Dragon is attached to the Harmony module. Credit: NASA TV

The ISS has been continuously occupied by humans for 15 years.

The current six person crew includes astronauts and cosmonauts from three nations; America, Russia and Italy including four men and two women serving aboard the massive orbiting lab complex.

They comprise Expedition 42 Commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Terry Virts from NASA, Samantha Cristoforetti from the European Space Agency (ESA) and cosmonauts Aleksandr Samokutyayev, Yelena Serova, and Anton Shkaplerov from Russia.

ISS Expedition 42. Credit: NASA/ESA/Roscosmos
ISS Expedition 42. Credit: NASA/ESA/Roscosmos

In the case of a life threatening emergency, the crew can rapidly abandon the station aboard the two docked Russian Soyuz capsules. They hold three persons each.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Can Astronauts Fix The Space Station In Two Spacewalks? Watch Live Tuesday To Find Out

Two astronauts are oh-so-close to fixing the International Space Station cooling system that shut down Dec. 11. NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins and Rick Mastracchio will head “outside” on a spacewalk around 7:10 a.m. EST (12:10 p.m. UTC) to replace a faulty pump that led to the problem.

The spacewalkers were so quick on their first outing (on Saturday, Dec. 21) that they accomplished many of the tasks planned for their second spacewalk. They unhooked the first pump module and stowed it safely, then elected to wait until their second to retrieve the replacement pump, swap it in and turn it on.

Below the jump, here are some things to watch for — including why Hopkins is getting a ride on the Canadarm2 robotic arm this time instead of Mastracchio.

The suits. NASA has new safety procedures and measures in place to protect against helmet water leaks, and everything worked perfectly the first time. In an unrelated incident, while the astronauts were in the airlock, an inadvertent switch-throw introduced some water into Mastracchio’s sublimator. The suit is airing out and Mastracchio is wearing a backup suit. While sublimators need water to function, this water could have ended up in the wrong spot. If he had used the one with the water in it, it could have frozen during the second spacewalk and caused problems, Judd Frieling, the Expedition 38 lead flight director, explained on NASA TV Monday.

The background personnel. While it’s easy to shine the spotlight on the two guys outside, also remember that Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata will be piloting the robotic arm under direction from CapCom and fellow Japanese astronaut Aki Hoshide. Giving advice to the spacewalkers will be CapCom and NASA astronaut Doug Wheelock, who did a similar repair on the International Space Station in 2010. As Wheelock told Universe Today, there are literally hundreds (likely, thousands) of people working the procedures to get this done.

The timeline. NASA really, really wants to wrap this repair up soon, and it’s not because of the holidays. Dec. 27 marks a planned spacewalk for the Russian side of the station that is totally unrelated to what is going on right now. The Americans are hoping they won’t disrupt the schedule so that the Russians can proceed with their experiment swapouts and foot restraint installation as originally planned.

Image above: Expedition 24 Flight Engineers Doug Wheelock (right) and Tracy Caldwell Dyson work to replace a failed ammonia pump module outside of the International Space Station. Credit: NASA TV
Image above: Expedition 24 Flight Engineers Doug Wheelock (right) and Tracy Caldwell Dyson work to replace a failed ammonia pump module outside of the International Space Station. Credit: NASA TV

The robotic arm. Hopkins is a much more junior spacewalker than the experienced Mastracchio, who has seven spacewalks underneath his belt before today. Hopkins, who is on his first spaceflight, is in a situation where he can expect more flights in the future. So any training he can get in orbit would be fantastic as he would be a stronger asset on future missions. So, Mastracchio was supposed to ride the Canadarm2 on the second spacewalk, but at that time NASA anticipated it would take three to do the repair. Since the crew finished the work so swiftly, it’s likely only two will be needed. As such, giving Hopkins the slot would be the best practice, NASA and the crew determined.

The future pump move. NASA decided not to move the faulty pump from its temporary stowage location until later. Due to thermal conditions on station, it can stay in its temporary spot until June. This saves the spacewalkers extra work now, but someone will need to head outside by summer to move it to a more permanent location.

We’ll let you know how the spacewalk went.

How to See Spectacular Prime Time Night Launch of Antares Commercial Rocket to ISS on Dec. 19

Antares Launch – Maximum Elevation Map
The Antares nighttime launch will be visible to millions of spectators across a wide area of the Eastern US -weather permitting. This map shows the maximum elevation (degrees above the horizon) that the Antares rocket will reach during the Dec 19, 2013 launch depending on your location along the US east coast. Credit: Orbital Sciences[/caption]

UPDATE: The launch of Cygnus has been delayed until no earlier than January 7, 2014 due to the coolant leak at the International Space Station and necessary spacewalks to fix the problem. You can read more about the issue here and here.

WALLOPS ISLAND, VA – Orbital Sciences Corp. is marching forward with plans for a spectacular night blastoff of the firms privately developed Antares rocket and Cygnus cargo spacecraft on Thursday, Dec. 19 from a seaside pad at Wallops Island, Virginia on a mission for NASA that’s bound for the International Space Station (ISS).

The nighttime Antares liftoff is currently scheduled for prime time – at 9:19 p.m. EST from Launch Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA Wallops Island, Virginia. It should be easily visible to tens of millions of residents along a wide swath of the US East Coast spanning from South Carolina to southern Maine – weather permitting.

Here’s our guide on “How to See the Antares/Cygnus Dec. 19 Night Launch” – with your own eyes – complete with viewing maps and trajectory graphics from a variety of prime viewing locations; including Philadelphia, NYC, Baltimore and historic landmarks in Washington, DC.

Update: launch postponed to mid-January 2014 to allow NASA astronauts to conduct 3 EVA’s to swap out the ammonia pump module and restore full cooling capacity to the ISS

It will be visible to spectators inland as well, stretching possibly into portions of West Virginia and western Pennsylvania.

For example; Here’s the expected view from Rocky’s famous workout on the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum.

Philadelphia
Philadelphia

The viewing maps are courtesy of Orbital Sciences, the private company that developed both the Antares rocket and Cygnus resupply vessel aimed at keeping the ISS fully stocked and operational for science research.

Up top is the map showing the maximum elevation the rocket will reach in the eastern United States.

Capitol-East-Front-Steps
Capitol-East-Front-Steps

The flight is designated the Orbital-1, or Orb-1 mission.

Orb-1 is the first of eight commercial cargo resupply missions to the ISS by Orbital according to its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA.

Of course you can still view the launch live via the NASA TV webcast.

This marks the maiden night launch of the two stage Antares rocket following a pair of daytime test and demonstration launches earlier this year, in April and September.

It’s important to note that the Dec. 19 liftoff is still dependent on NASA engineers resolving the significant issue with the ammonia cooling system that popped up late last week when a critical flow control valve malfunctioned.

If the pump valve can’t be brought back online, two American astronauts may make two or three unscheduled spacewalks starting later this week.

So in the event spacewalks are required, Antares launch could still slip a few days to the end of the launch window around Dec. 21 or Dec. 22. Thereafter the launch would be postponed until January 2014.

Battery Park, NYC
Battery Park, NYC

Here’s your chance to witness a mighty rocket launch – from the comfort of your home and nearby locations along the east coast.

And its smack dab in the middle of the Christmas and holiday season resplendent with shining bright lights.

Weather outlook appears rather promising at this time – 95% favorable chance of lift off.

National Mall, Washington, DC
National Mall, Washington, DC

The rocket was rolled out to the Wallops launch pad this morning by Orbital’s technicians.

Cygnus is loaded with approximately 1465 kg (3,230 lbs.) of cargo for the ISS crew for NASA.

NASA Television coverage of the Antares launch will begin at 8:45 p.m. on Dec. 19 – www.nasa.gov/ntv

Stay tuned here for Ken’s Antares launch reports from NASA Wallops Flight Facility, VA.

Ken Kremer

Iwo Jima memorial
Iwo Jima memorial
Dover
Dover