Virts became aware of traces of fluid in his helmet as he waited to get back onboard the International Space Station (ISS) after a 7-hour spacewalk on Wednesday, according to CNN. Both Virts and Barry “Butch” Wilmore had been performing maintenance and preparing the ISS to receive a new generation of commercial space vehicles from 2017 onward.
Dangerous accumulation of water
Virts contacted fellow astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti warning her about the water, and she in turn contacted Mission Control in Houston. Cristoforetti took Virts’ helmet off and confirmed that the Helmet Absorption Pad (HAP) was “wet and cold.”
Subsequently Anton Shkaplerov drew out the water from the helmet using a syringe. It had collected in the top of the helmet and around both ear cups, and Shkaplerov estimated that he had taken out around 15 milliliters of water.
Fortunately for NASA’s Virts the scale of the problem was nowhere near that of fellow astronaut Luca Parmitano, whose suit was found to contain between 1 and 1.5 liters of water during a spacewalk in July 2013. The quantity of water led to fears that he could drown in his own helmet.
ISS docking capabilities to be upgraded
Since that episode the design of space suits has been changed, and absorbent padding has been added to helmets. In December 2013 another leak was noted in the helmet of a space suit, during the repressurization of the crew lock. This is the same stage as Wednesday’s leak occurred.
The mission management team will surely have the leak at the forefront of their minds at Friday’s planned meeting. Officials will have to reach a decision on whether to carry on with Sunday’s space walk as planned, or delay operations until they can study the suit and find out why the water collected inside.
The planned spacewalks are part of an effort to upgrade the docking ports of the ISS so that commercial spacecraft, manufactured by SpaceX and Boeing, can bring astronauts and supplies to the station. The move ends the U.S. reliance on Russian space capsules to transport resources to the ISS.