Boeing Starliner team detects new helium leaks en route to space ...

6 Jun 2024

Sign up for CNN’s Wonder Theory science newsletter. Explore the universe with news on fascinating discoveries, scientific advancements and more.

Starliner - Figure 1
Photo CNN

CNN  — 

After a successful launch that was a decade in the making, Boeing’s Starliner mission is navigating new issues en route to the International Space Station, according to NASA.

The space agency said late Wednesday in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, that two additional helium leaks had been detected on the vehicle. One helium leak had been discovered prior to launch and deemed acceptable.

“Helium is used in spacecraft thruster systems to allow the thrusters to fire and is not combustible or toxic,” according to Boeing.

As of Thursday morning, two of the three leaks have been corrected, according to a live NASA broadcast. The leak is not posing a safety risk and there helium in reserve, according to the broadcast.

Starliner is still expected to dock at the space station at 12:15 p.m. ET, according to a post from the orbiting lab’s official account on X. NASA will began live coverage of the docking process on its website starting at 9:30 a.m. ET.

Mission managers polled “go” for rendezvous and docking with the space station, and the leaks are not expected to impact docking, according to the broadcast.

“During all of Starliner’s rendezvous and proximity operations, we’ll keep those propellant manifolds open, but they’ll stay open until docking. Starliner’s currently maintaining plenty of helium reserves,” Boeing aerospace engineer Jim May confirmed Thursday morning in a social media post on X shared by Boeing.

“Currently the helium leak is not a safety issue for the crew, the vehicle or the mission.”

If all goes according to plan, the hatch between the space station and Starliner will open around 2 p.m. ET, and Wilmore and Williams will be welcomed at 2:20 p.m. ET by the crew of seven cosmonauts and astronauts already aboard the station.

Just as astronauts Butch Willmore and Suni Williams were about to go to sleep Wednesday night, mission control informed them that they needed to shut down two valves due to the new helium leaks.

“Teams have identified three helium leaks on the spacecraft. One of these was previously discussed before flight along with a management plan,” NASA shared in the post. “The other two are new since the spacecraft arrived on orbit. Two of the affected helium valves have been closed and the spacecraft remains stable.”

A related exchange had taken place earlier on the NASA broadcast.

“Looks like we picked up a couple more helium leaks,” mission control told the astronauts, as heard on the broadcast. Controllers then walked the crew through the plan to shut down the valves.

“Butch, I’m sorry. We’re still getting the story together,” mission control replied.

“We are ready to … find out exactly what you mean by picked up another helium leak, so give it to us,” Wilmore told them.

NASA and Boeing determined the crew was safe and told the duo to go to sleep while they continue to look at the data. The crew was supposed to sleep for nine hours, but the troubleshooting effort cut into an hour of rest time.

“We have some issues to watch overnight when in regards to the helium leaks that was just brought up, and we have a lot of smart people down here on the ground that are going to take a look at this stuff and keep an eye on it, but the vehicle is in a configuration right now where they’re safe to fly,” Boeing aerospace engineer Brandon Burroughs said on the NASA broadcast.

Starliner’s highly anticipated voyage lifted off atop an Atlas V rocket Wednesday at 10:52 a.m. ET from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The historic launch marked the first time the spacecraft has carried a crew to space.

The mission, known as the Crew Flight Test, is the culmination of Boeing’s efforts to develop a spacecraft to rival SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule and expand the United States’ options for ferrying astronauts to the space station under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The federal agency’s initiative aims to foster collaboration with private industry partners.

The flight marks only the sixth inaugural journey of a crewed spacecraft in US history, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson noted in a May news conference.

“It started with Mercury, then with Gemini, then with Apollo, the space shuttle, then (SpaceX’s) Dragon — and now Starliner,” Nelson said.

Williams also made history as the first woman to fly aboard such a mission.

“This is another milestone in this extraordinary history of NASA,” Nelson said Wednesday after the launch. “And I want to give my personal congratulations to the whole team that went through a lot of trial and tribulation. But they had perseverance and that’s what we do at NASA. We don’t launch until it’s right.”

After spending just over 24 hours traveling to the space station, Williams and Wilmore are expected to spend about eight days living in the orbiting laboratory, but it is unclear whether the helium leaks will alter that timeline.

Just after Wednesday’s launch, NASA officials shared that Williams and Wilmore may enjoy a slightly extended stay aboard the station. The earliest possible landing date is June 14.

“We’ve got a prescribed landing date that goes along with this launch date, but I just want to emphasize that nobody should get too excited about that date,” said Ken Bowersox, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Operations Mission Directorate. “We have to have a lot of conditions that are just right before we bring the Starliner home and we’re going to wait till the conditions are right and we’ve accomplished the test objectives before we do that.”

A number of issues caused the previous crewed launch attempts, on May 6 and June 1, to be scrubbed.

Two hours prior to the launch attempt on May 6, engineers identified an issue with a valve on the second stage, or upper portion, of the Atlas V rocket, which was built by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. The entire stack, including the rocket and spacecraft, was rolled back from the launchpad for testing and repairs.

Teams also worked through a small helium leak within the spacecraft service module and a “design vulnerability” in the propulsion system.

After troubleshooting the initial helium leak in May, mission specialists found it did not pose a threat to the flight. During the launch countdown Wednesday morning, teams monitored the leak and reported no issues.

Starliner was just 3 minutes and 50 seconds from liftoff Saturday afternoon, when an automatic hold was triggered by the ground launch sequencer, or the computer that launches the rocket.

United Launch Alliance technicians and engineers assessed the ground support equipment over the weekend, examining three large computers housed inside a shelter at the base of the launchpad. Each computer is the same, providing triple redundancy to ensure the safe launch of crewed missions.

Engineers isolated the issue that halted Saturday’s launch attempt to a single ground power supply within one of the computers, which provides power to the computer cards responsible for key countdown events, according to an update shared by NASA.

They removed the computer and replaced it with a spare.

Read more
Similar news
This week's most popular news