The POT has given the green light to restart US-led spacewalks outside the International Space Station (ISS) following the completion of an investigation into a serious incident that occurred during a spacewalk in March.
This means NASA’s next spacewalk could take place in mid-November, the space agency said this week.
NASA decided to stop operations outside the ISS after a spacewalk in which a thin layer of moisture appeared inside the helmet of astronaut Matthias Maurer.
An investigation revealed that up to 50% of Maurer’s visor had been covered in water, with additional moisture found in an absorption pad on the back of his helmet.
Although Maurer’s case was not considered an emergency at the time, NASA described it as a “close call” and therefore decided to halt spacewalks until it could determine the cause.
Water samples taken from the hull and some spacesuit equipment were returned to Earth for analysis.
“During the investigation, the space station team completed a detailed test, disassembly, and evaluation of the suit’s water samples and hardware to determine what led to the observed water, which was more than normal, on the hull,” said NASA this week.
No hardware faults were found within the suit, leading the researchers to conclude that the water likely appeared in the helmet due to “several variables, such as crew effort and crew cooling settings.” [que] led to the generation of comparatively larger than normal amounts of condensation within the system.”
In response to their findings, NASA has updated various operating procedures for such situations and added new hardware to minimize scenarios that could lead to water pooling.
“Crew safety is the top priority for NASA and our international partners,” said Kathryn Lueders, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Operations Mission Directorate. “I am proud of the work of the space station and ground teams to keep our crew members safe, for taking the time to close the investigation, and for continually finding ways to mitigate the risks in human spaceflight.”
Since NASA halted US-led spacewalks in May, only three have taken place outside the ISS, mostly involving Russian cosmonauts.
When the next spacewalk takes place, NASA astronauts are expected to continue work deploying new solar arrays for the station as part of ongoing work to improve the orbital outpost’s power supply.
For some, Maurer’s experience brought to mind a near-catastrophic incident that occurred during an ISS spacewalk in 2013.
Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano was working outside the station when water began to appear on his helmet. He later described how droplets of water began to enter his nose, mouth and eyes, making it difficult to see his surroundings and, more worryingly, to breathe.
Thanks to his painstaking training, Parmitano was able to keep his cool and find his way back to the airlock and safety. A later investigation attributed the cause to a contaminated fan pump inside the spacesuit.