Helium leak, thruster issues: What's hindering Sunita Williams' return from space

Boeing's maiden human space flight was postponed and cancelled several times before it eventually launched. However, instead of returning home after about eight days, the spacecraft remains docked to the station.
Helium leak, thruster issues: What's hindering Sunita Williams' return from space
Jaano Junction

Indian-origin astronaut Sunita Williams and her Nasa counterpart Butch Willmore had to take emergency shelter in their Starliner spacecraft docked at the International Space Station (ISS) after an alert of a potential debris strike from the break up of an aged satellite.

Thousands of pieces of debris from dead satellites, rocket boosters and junk from anti-satellite weapons tests remain in orbit, covering the planet.

The immediate threat to the astronauts’ safety was from 100 debris pieces following the break up of a decommissioned Russian satellite on June 26, as per the US Space Command (USSPACECOM).

“USSPACECOM has observed no immediate threats and is continuing to conduct routine conjunction assessments to support the safety and sustainability of the space domain. As such, USSPACECOM has notified commercial, governmental, Allied and Partner organisations via Space-Track.org, to include Russia as the satellite owner,” Nasa said in a press release.

As they survived the brief threat, the two astronauts continue to live aboard the flying laboratory as part of their extended mission due to glitches with the Starliner spacecraft.

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Helium leak, thruster issues: What's hindering Sunita Williams' return from space

Initially scheduled to come back to Earth on June 18, the two astronauts are working with Nasa to fix the fault in the thrusters of the Starliner spacecraft that Williams piloted to space.

A renaissance of space exploration and a growing market for satellites means that the amount of space junk circling Earth is increasing by the day. The recent collision of an ISS robotic arm with a piece of debris serves as a reminder of the growing problem.

India Today’s OSINT team quantifies how big the problem is, using data from Nasa’s Orbital Debris Program.

While the piece that hit the ISS was below the threshold for monitoring, more than 20,000 space objects the size of a softball or above are currently known to exist in orbit. While some are in use, like satellites, a majority can be classified as space junk. This includes old rocket stages, space mission components that on purpose or accidentally remained in space and other artificial debris that was created by collisions, breakups or explosions.

Boeing's maiden human space flight was postponed and cancelled several times before it eventually launched. However, instead of returning home after about eight days, the spacecraft remains docked to the station.

The return flight has been delayed repeatedly as ground teams continue to troubleshoot a series of problems that includes helium leaks and a few thrusters that stopped working at a critical moment in the flight, in the capsule’s propulsion system.

Initially, Starliner was supposed to come home on June 18 but the Nasa later pushed it to June 26. The space agency has delayed it again to July, saying the teams needed more time to study the propulsion system problems.

There is no rush to fly the astronauts home, Nasa said, without giving any probable date for the undocking.

WHY IS HELIUM SO IMPORTANT?

Helium, an inert gas, is used to push propellants to the thrusters. If too much is lost, the thrusters may not work properly. The leak was traced to a seal on a helium line leading to one of 28 small thrusters known as reaction control system engines.

Nasa also said the helium leaks don’t pose a risk to the return. Four of the five thrusters are now operating normally, and since the spacecraft is outfitted with 28 such thrusters there is plenty of redundancy.

The spacecraft can stay docked in space for up to 45 days, giving crew members a little breather to continue to troubleshoot the issues.

Years of setbacks, including a botched-up test flight without astronauts on board in 2019, have cost Boeing some $1.5 billion in cost overruns.

It needs Starliner to start flying the regular crew rotation flights so that it can start getting paid for the missions.

Source: India Today

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