• Ad Astra
  • Posts
  • An air leak on the ISS | Space News from Ad Astra

An air leak on the ISS | Space News from Ad Astra

Also, a Mars mission in trouble

In this week’s space news:

In addition, I posted a video/newsletter on why it’s so hard to land on the moon (when the U.S. did it during Apollo) earlier this week so check that out if you’re interested.

There’s a leak on the Russian side of the ISS, and it’s getting worse

In news you never want to hear, there’s an air a leak aboard the International Space Station and it’s getting worse.

ISS in 2018, credit: ESA

It’s important to note that first the astronauts aren’t in danger, and this is a leak we’ve been aware of for awhile. But now it’s getting worse, according to Joe Montalbano, the manager of the ISS program for NASA.

Credit: NASA

The leak is on the Russian side, in the Zvezda service module, in a vestibule located between the docking port and the module. Roscosmos and NASA have been monitoring the air leak for some team, but it’s been increasing. It’s now at a rate of 0.9 kilograms of lost air per day. But the good news is that this section can be sealed off from the rest of the ISS, and only needs to be accessed with there’s a spacecraft docking or undocking with the module. 

The Russian Progress spacecraft arrived and docked with the Zvezda module on February 16, and the leak increased about a week before this launch and docking. The hatch was open for five days after that to allow the Space Station crew to unload the capsule. After that, it was closed again and won’t be re-opened until early April.

First three ISS modules, from the left: Zvezda, Zarya, Unity, credit: NASA

It’s important to remember how old some parts of the International Space Station are. Zvezda launched on July 25, 2000, and was the third module of the ISS that was launched, so it’s old. (This isn’t personal, for anyone who remembers when Zvezda launched — humans age much better than spacecraft). It was originally designed as part of the Mir-2 space station, but after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia partnered with the United States on the ISS and they repurposed it.

It’s 1980s tech, built in the 1990s. It’s not a surprise that it’s leaky at this point, and this isn’t even the first leak we’ve found. But also Zvezda is an integral part of Space Station, and among other things, provides life support for up to six crew members. So NASA’s monitoring it, and right now there’s nothing that needs to be done. However, if the leak continues to grow, it definitely might become an issue.

JWST studied the light from some of the first stars in our universe

One of the coolest things JWST is doing is helping us learn about the early universe. Recently, scientists studied the exceptionally luminous galaxy GN-z11, as it existed just 430 million years after the Big Bang. And they may have found evidence for Population III stars, the early stars of our universe that we’ve theorized about but never directly detected.

Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Brant Robertson (UC Santa Cruz), Ben Johnson (CfA), Sandro Tacchella (Cambridge), Marcia Rieke (University of Arizona), Daniel Eisenstein (CfA)

The research will be published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, but a pre-print is available now

According to the conventional wisdom, Population III stars are made up of only primordial gas — hydrogen and helium — because heavier elements didn’t exist at the time they were created. They’re incredibly massive, luminous, and burn very hot. These stars produced heavy metals and then died, so when Population II stars were created from leftover material, they contained more heavy metals. Our sun is considered a Population I star. 

Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Ralf Crawford (STScI)

This is something scientists have theorized about but never directly observed. They think that these clumps of pristine helium are what collapse to form Population III stars. The next step is to continue to study this galaxy, and other massive early galaxies, to see if they can find any other evidence of Population III stars.

March 14: The tentative launch date for Starship

We have a launch date for SpaceX’s next Starship test.

Credit: SpaceX

Last week, we discussed how the FAA had closed its investigation into the Starship launch on November 18. Now, SpaceX has announced that their third attempt to launch their interplanetary launch vehicle will be the morning of March 14. They will livestream the attempt at their website.

The last flight terminated soon after the first stage separation, so the goal, of course, is to accomplish the full test. That will include splashdown of Starship in the Indian Ocean instead of the Pacific Ocean, as was the intention on previous tests, according to SpaceX’s website. Jonathan MacDowell has a great map, if you’re interested.

SpaceX still waiting on a launch license from the FAA, so this launch could shift if that isn’t issued in a timely fashion.

Jupiter’s moon produces less oxygen than we thought

You may have seen headlines that Jupiter’s moon Europa has less oxygen than we thought and may not be habitable . . . and you might be wondering, wait, a moon in our solar system is habitable? Let me break down what exactly this research said, what scientists thought previously, and whether it’s actually a huge disappointment.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS Image processing: Kevin M. Gill CC BY 3.0

First, let’s talk about why scientists think Europa is habitable. Specifically, while it might have resources we could use for some sort of outpost or base, Europa is not habitable for humans in the traditional sense. When you see all these headlines about one of Jupiter’s moons being habitable, they mean that the moon has:

  1. A subsurface ocean of salty liquid water

  2. Organic materials deposited from asteroids 

  3. Energy from Jupiter’s radiation blasting the surface

  4. Stability, meaning the ocean has been there for approximately 4 billion years.

This means that Europa might be habitable for life generally, not for humans. Between being blasted by Jupiter’s radiation and the warmest temperatures on the surface only being -210 degrees F or -134.4 degrees C, we’re not talking about humans moving to Europa and finding sandy beaches and balmy weather. But there might possibly be life in the oceans.

What’s put a bit of a damper on that is this new research, that basically says that Europa produces much less oxygen than we thought. The results were published in the journal Nature Astronomy. Because Europa’s surface is predominately water ice, scientists thought that it produced abundant oxygen, which is necessary for any life as we know it to develop. 

Plume is on the bottom left in this composite image from Hubble, credit: NASA/ESA/W. Sparks (STScI)/USGS Astrogeology Science Center

Using data from the Juno mission, scientists looked at the hydrogen data from Juno’s flight through one of the water plumes ejected into space by Europa. They were able to calculate the amount of oxygen the moon produces and came up with over 1,000 tons per day, or somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 tons per second. 

It sounds like a lot, but that’s significantly less than the over 2,000 pounds per second that some previous studies predicted. But it’s important to note that life could still exist in Europa’s subsurface oceans at these levels. 

This team will continue to study Juno’s Europa data, and NASA’s Europa Clipper mission, which will study the moon in depth when it arrives in 2030, is currently scheduled to launch in October of this year.

Want to know what JWST is looking at right this second? There’s now a tool for that

Have you ever wondered what the great space observatories are looking at right now? Thanks to a new tool from NASA, now you’ll know. 

“What is Webb observing” and “What is Hubble observing” both allow you to look at what’s currently being observed, how long it is, when the next observation is, and details of the observation. They’ve loaded data for all of JWST’s observations into this tool, so you can go back to its first science observations.

It’s important to note that while you can see some cool photos in this viewing target area, the pictures you are seeing aren’t real-time observations. This data has to be processed before it’s released to the public, but remember if it’s raw JWST images you want to see, you can do that at the Space Telescope Science Institute’s website.

When I find myself clicking around my computer wasting time, I like to have a couple of websites that re-center me so I can focus on what needs to get done. If you follow me on social media, you may have noticed I look at NASA’s Deep Space Network a lot. That’s why, because it’s one of my go-to sites when I’m clicking around. I think this JWST site is going to be up there right alongside it.

The Mars Sample Return mission is in trouble

One of the things the Mars Perseverance rover is doing on Mars is diligently collecting samples of the Martian surface for eventual retrieval by a separate mission. This is called the Mars Sample Return mission, and it’s in trouble.

Credit: NASA/JPL/Malin Space Systems

The plan, basically, is to send a robotic lander to the Jezero Crater in 2028. Two helicopters, like Mars Ingenuity, would retrieve the samples and bring them back to the lander. After they were all collected, the lander would send them into orbit where they’d rendezvous with another spacecraft that would bring them home in 2033ish.

Credit: NASA

Ambitious, right? We’ve been hearing for awhile about the extraordinary expense of the Mars Sample Return mission. A report from the Office of the NASA Inspector General revealed that the $4 billion budget for the project is wildly low. Instead, NASA’s portion of the expense (it’s a joint mission with the European Space Agency) would be between $8 billion and $11 billion. The report also states that there’s really no way the mission could launch before 2030.

The program has been under threat of cancellation by Congress for awhile. Earlier this year, NASA’s JPL had to lay off 530 people because of lower than antiquated funding for the Mars Sample Return. The 2024 Congressional Appropriations committee budgets, released March 3, doesn’t cancel the program. But it does highlight the concern in schedule slips and chides NASA for laying off workforce without consulting Congress. We’re in a holding pattern until an Independent Review Board finishes auditing the mission and delivers recommendations.

Mars Perseverance, Credit: NASA/JPL

Mars Sample Return is hugely important for planetary science, but NASA has competing priorities, and not everything can get funded fully. We’ll see what happens here.

China is getting ready for their moon missions

China’s on a quest to get to its taikonauts to the moon, and the country is making a big step towards that goal next year. They’re planning on launching two reusable rockets next year, according to Space News.

There’s a bit of a space race going on right now. China has pledged to put taikonauts on the moon by 2030, and NASA is under pressure to complete its first Artemis landing — currently scheduled for NET May 2026, with Artemis III, before that happens. With the delays that are plaguing the Artemis program, it’s not clear who will be first. (If you’re wondering why NASA is struggling to return to the moon when we accomplished it with Apollo, I published a video on that).

China’s launch schedule is very aggressive. The country plans to launch 100 rockets next year, an increase of 40% over their current cadence, according to Bloomberg News. That would put them behind only SpaceX for the number of launches per year. This week two taikonauts performed routine maintenance of the Tiangong space station, including the solar panels.

NASA is hiring astronauts!

Speaking of moon missions, NASA opened applications for its next class of astronauts this week. The requirements are pretty general — be a U.S. citizen, have a master’s degree in a STEM field, have completed a minimum of three years of professional work after being awarded that degree, and be able to pass a NASA physical. Pilots can also apply, if they have 1,000 Pilot-in-Command hours with at least 850 of those hours in high performance jet aircraft.)

Credit: NASA

If that’s you, then go ahead and apply on NASA’s website. The last application year was 2021, and NASA chose 11 astronaut candidates out of over 1,2000 applicants. That astronaut class graduated this year, which is why the applications are open again.