A prototype of a leak detection system built at the University of Maine is slated for a trip to the International Space Station this summer before returning with data to build the next-generation model that would serve as an early warning system for the astronauts who briefly call the ISS home.

Wireless Leak Detection System Headed To Space Station

Leak detection system slated for August 1st launch

A SpaceX rocket will take three lead detectors to the International Space Station when the private space operator makes its next resupply mission to the ISS presently slated for August 1, 2016.

During the last resupply, SpaceX brought the first inflatable module to the space station. The fabric room will be installed and inflated sometime this weekend and will see the first astronaut spend time in the inflatable module sometime next month. The module itself, made by Bigelow Aerospace, is essentially designed to give an understanding of the practical uses of fabric inflatables in space.

The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), is an example of technology that might prove necessary on a trip to Mars, or could even be a hallmark of future space hotels as more and more companies begin to get serious about space tourism.

“It’s a big step for us, because inflatables can be a big multiplier for us as we move further out into space,” said Mark Geyer of Johnson Space Center.

While the electronic engineering students responsible for the leak detector have already tested it in the university’s inflatable lunar habitat and Wireless Sensing Laboratory (WiSe-Net Lab), they will take it to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas next week for further testing.

If inflatables become common place, leak detection is key. But it doesn’t stop there, with the amount of debris in space smaller leaks in the more rigid materials that make up the ISS, need to be caught quickly as well if they are to be fixed in time.

The primary driver for the project is Ali Abedi, a UMaine professor of electrical and computer engineering, who received $100,000 from NASA to build the detector. Abedi added Vince Caccese, a UMaine mechanical engineering professor, and George Nelson, director of the ISS Technology Demonstration Office at the NASA Johnson Space Center to his team in order to build the detector.

Leaks in space are bad

Understatement aside, astronauts will likely feel much better knowing they have the technology to discover even tiny leaks before they become a problem.

According to Abedi, his device will be able to detect multiple leaks and the device will be both low-cost and lightweight.

“Our goal is to push the boundaries of hardware and software to design a highly accurate, ultra-low-power and lightweight autonomous leak detection and localization system for ISS,” says Abedi.

In order to detect the leaks, the device employs six sensors that look for the frequency that escaping air generates into space. The redundancy of the sensors, allows for the triangulation of the leak using a set of algorithms designed by the team. The detector then saves this data on SD cards that can be returned to Earth for analysis, presumably, on SpaceX’s Dragon capsule.

“While the hardware is in space, our team at UMaine will be on standby mode until data collection is completed,” says one team member. “The system is designed to be automated. So we do not interact with the device during on-board operations.”