Remember that story about the kid who plugged the hole in the dam with his finger, and saved his village?
Well, it’s like that, except in space.
The International Space Station was hit by space junk, and it sprang a leak.
Mission flight controllers noticed a drop in pressure on Wednesday night, and after a search on Thursday, astronauts found the two millimetre hole in the Russian section of the station.
The Telegraph reports that “although the leak is small if it had not been spotted the crew would have run out of air in 18 days”.
The damage was found by closing hatches to each module one at a time, and European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Alexander Gerst initially plugged the gap with his finger, before duct taping over the hole to prevent more air leaking into space.
During a live feed from the ISS, Nasa’s ground control were heard to comment: “Right now Alex has got his finger on that hole and I don’t think that’s the best remedy for it.”
See what I mean about that kid and the dam? Only if Alex takes his finger off of the hole, the air is slowly sucked out.
Later, the two Russian spacemen put sealant on a cloth and stuck it over the area, while their colleagues took photos for engineers on the ground. Flight controllers, meanwhile, monitored the cabin pressure while working to come up with a better long-term solution.
Mission Control outside Moscow gave instruction to let the sealant dry overnight and conduct further leak checks on Friday. For now, the makeshift repairs seem to have stabilised the situation, and the atmosphere has been partially replenished in the station.
Experts have warned for several years that the amount of junk orbiting the Earth, from defunct satellites and spacecraft poses a grave danger to the ISS. But this is the first time any significant damage has been caused.
Since 1957, more than 5,250 launches have led to more than 23,000 tracked objects in orbit around Earth.
But only about 1,200 are working satellites – the rest are debris and no longer serve any useful purpose.
Many derelict craft have exploded or broken up, generating an estimated 750,000 pieces larger than 1 cm and a staggering 166 million larger than 1 mm spinning round the globe at 30,000 mph.
Last year, the ESA asked satellite operators and space agencies to clean up after themselves, warning that pieces of space junk had “tremendous relative velocities, faster than a bullet, and can damage or destroy functioning space infrastructure”.
In March a prototype “litter picker” was sent to the Space Station, which will start conducting experiments in space litter cleanup.
As well as Gerst, there are five other astronauts on board. Commander Drew Feustel, FlightEngineers Ricky Arnold and Serena Auñón-Chancellor of NASA, and Oleg Artemyev and Sergey Prokopyev of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, gathered in the Russian segment of the station and, after extensive checks, reported that the leak appears to be on the Russian side of the orbital outpost.
There is currently a Russian Progress cargo ship docked at the ISS and Roscosmos is recommending using oxygen from its tanks to repressurise the station.
NASA will continue to monitor the situation as the crew works on finding a more permanent fix.
While we wait to hear more, you can take a 3D virtual tour of the ISS:
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