A worsening leak on the International Space Station (ISS) has been plugged thanks to an unusual method – using floating tea leaves to work out where it was.
Since September 2019, a small amount of air as been leaking from the ISS at a rate of 0.6 pounds of air per day – not much, but cause for some concern. However, by August 2020 the problem had increased five-fold, with the loss rate rising to 3.1 pounds per day.
Over the next several weeks, the crew began searching for the leak. This included closing hatches to isolate the leak, along with an ultrasonic leak detector. Ultimately the location of the leak was narrowed down to the Zvezda module, the location of Russia’s crew quarters on the station.
Finding the actual leak itself – which NASA noted posed “no immediate danger to the crew” – proved more difficult. But last week, the Russian space agency – Rocosmos – said the crew had successfully used floating tea leaves to work out where it was and plugged it, although the cause of the small hole still seems to be unknown.
“We believe that we have really identified the probable leakage area,” said Russian cosmonaut Anatoly Ivanishin, one of the crew of six on the ISS, reported the Russian news agency TASS. “We have distributed a tea bag before closing the transfer chamber.”
Ivanishin added: “We have several photos and videos of the direction of the tea bag’s flight or where it intended to fly and this precisely shows the direction the air is blowing from the possible air leak.”
The crew have now put tape over the crack, which will temporarily prevent a further loss of air. The plan now is to find a more permanent solution to seal the leak.
This could include using equipment brought up by the most recent Soyuz launch on October 14, with NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and Russian cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov on board.
“ISS crew sealed the airleak using temporary means available at the station,” Roscosmos said in a short statement on Twitter.
“Currently, [the] Chief Operating Control Group together with the [ISS] crew is working out a program of operations to permanently seal the leak location.”
This is not the first time a leak has been reported on the ISS. Back in 2018, a small hole was found in one of the Soyuz spacecraft docked with the space station, potentially due to human error on the ground. Russia later said that, while the cause of the leak had been found, it would not reveal what happened.