Boeing’s Starliner Faces Fifth Helium Leak During ISS Mission

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By Lydia Amazouz Published on June 12, 2024 10:30
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Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, currently conducting its first astronaut-crewed flight test, has encountered five minor helium leaks, as reported by NASA and Boeing.

This development comes as the Starliner, which successfully docked with the International Space Station (ISS) on June 6, continues its mission, now extended to June 18.

Details of the Helium Leaks

The helium leaks were discovered in the spacecraft's service module, which houses critical systems and instruments. Helium is used to pressurize the reaction control system (RCS) maneuvering thrusters, which are essential for the spacecraft's flight operations. The leaks were identified after the Starliner's launch on June 5, with one leak detected shortly after a previous launch attempt on May 25 had to be scrubbed.

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According to NASA spokesperson Josh Finch, the fifth and latest leak was detected around the time of the post-docking briefing. This leak, recorded at 1.7 psi (pounds per square inch) per minute, is considerably smaller than the other four. The largest leak, detected after launch, was reported at 395 psi per minute. Despite these issues, engineers have assessed that the Starliner has sufficient helium to complete its mission, requiring only seven hours of free-flight time to perform the end-of-mission maneuvers, while currently having enough helium for 70 hours.

Addressing the Leaks and Mission Continuation

NASA has closed the helium manifolds in the propulsion system to prevent further loss while the spacecraft is docked at the ISS. However, these manifolds will need to be reopened for undocking and deorbit maneuvers. Additionally, engineers are examining a valve in the RCS that has not properly closed, although other valves cycled normally during checks. This issue, along with a thruster that shut down during flight to the ISS, is under investigation to ensure the spacecraft's safe return to Earth.

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Astronauts Barry "Butch" Wilmore and Sunita "Suni" Williams are onboard the ISS, continuing to test the Starliner as part of the data collection required for potential NASA certification for regular crewed missions. These tests include verifying the spacecraft's ability to power up again after being in minimal power mode, evaluating its life support systems, and ensuring the functionality of the service module's batteries.

Nasa Astronauts Butch Wilmore (left) And Suni Williams

Implications for the Starliner Program

The helium leaks are the latest in a series of challenges faced by the Starliner program, which has experienced multiple delays and technical issues since its inception. The current mission is crucial for Boeing as it seeks NASA certification to join SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft in transporting crew and cargo to the ISS. Despite these setbacks, both NASA and Boeing remain confident in the Starliner's capabilities. "Our experienced test pilots have been overwhelmingly positive of their flight on Starliner, and we can’t wait to learn more from them and the flight data to continue improving the vehicle," said Mark Nappi, Boeing's vice president and commercial crew program manager.

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The mission extension to June 18 allows additional time for system checks and preparations for future spacewalks. This extension also aligns with planned ISS activities, such as a spacewalk on June 13 by NASA astronauts Tracy Dyson and Matt Dominick. The Starliner is scheduled to undock and return to Earth, landing in the southwestern United States, marking the completion of this pivotal flight test.

In summary, while the discovery of five helium leaks presents challenges, the successful docking and ongoing mission activities demonstrate Boeing's and NASA's commitment to resolving issues and advancing the Starliner program. The data and experiences gathered from this mission will be invaluable in refining the spacecraft and ensuring the safety and reliability of future crewed missions to space.

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An editor specializing in astronomy and space industry, passionate about uncovering the mysteries of the universe and the technological advances that propel space exploration.

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