Last night, flight controllers in Houston and Moscow noticed a drop in pressurization on the International Space Station. To figure out where the leak was, astronauts closed off sections of the station until it was determined that the leak had to be inside the Russian-made area. Upon closer examination, a small 2 millimeter hole was found. Had the astronauts been unable to locate the hole, the ISS would have ran out of breathable air in just eighteen days.
The astronauts had to do something to address the situation, and rather quickly. So, ISS astronaut Alexanser Gerst came up with the best solution to a space-related problem that I’ve ever heard: he plugged the hole in the International Space Station with his finger.
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During the live feed with NASA, the ground crew was heard saying “Right now Alex has got his finger on that hole and I don’t think that’s the best remedy for it.”
Instead, astronauts ended up using an improvised temporary sealing and adhesive device (duct tape) to stop the flow of air out of the station while they work on a more permanent solution. Their long term fix reportedly involves rubber bin bag ties, tape, gauze from their medical kit and vacuum proof sealant.
Though the European Space Agency says they’re still seeing a “constant depress” in pressure on the ISS, and a fluctuation in leak rate, the astronauts on the ISS are “healthy and safe with weeks of air left in the International Space Station reserves.”
This highlights a growing problem with low Earth orbit – space junk. According to the Telegraph:
Since 1957, more than 5250 launches have led to more than 23,000 tracked objects in orbit around Earth.
But only about 1200 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.
Many companies have thought up designs for capturing the debris in low Earth orbit, using things such as nets or harpoons, but the real problem here is the sheer scale of things.
Think about the size of the oceans on Earth. Now imagine trying to track something the size of one centimeter moving through the ocean at about 5 miles a second (which is how fast the ISS orbits Earth). Now scale that up to around the entire planet. Oh, and at varying heights, too – from the ISS orbit (about 250 miles above Earth) to over 22,200 miles (geosynchronous orbit, the point where satellites are locked in orbit above the same spot on Earth).
For comparison, the diameter of Earth is a measly 7900 miles.