Boeing’s Starliner Now Has 5 Leaks While Parked Outside the ISS

Boeing’s Starliner Now Has 5 Leaks While Parked Outside the ISS

Following an iffy docking at the International Space Station last week, Boeing managed to deliver a pair of NASA astronauts to the orbital lab. The stressful Starliner saga continues as the crew capsule developed more leaks in its service module. NASA is currently evaluating its ability to return the duo back to Earth.

In an update shared on Monday, NASA revealed that the Starliner teams are assessing the impact that five helium leaks would have on the remainder of the mission. “While Starliner is docked, all the manifolds are closed per normal mission operations preventing helium loss from the tanks,” the space agency wrote.

If you’ve been keeping track, there were three leaks on the Starliner spacecraft the last time we checked. Starliner teams had identified two new leaks on the spacecraft after it launched on June 5, in addition to a helium leak that was detected prior to liftoff. The team took some time to assess the issue before launching the capsule, but eventually Boeing and NASA decided to proceed with flying the crew on the leaky Starliner spacecraft without resolving the problem.

The spacecraft consists of a reusable crew capsule and an expendable service module. Helium is used in the spacecraft’s thruster systems to allow the thrusters to fire without being combustible or toxic. “We can handle this particular leak if that leak rate were to grow even up to 100 times,” Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said during a news conference before the Starliner launch.

Well, it’s getting there. Despite the leaks suggesting a larger issue with Starliner’s propulsion system, NASA remains confident in its commercial partner and is downplaying the spacecraft’s anomalies. “Engineers evaluated the helium supply based on current leak rates and determined that Starliner has plenty of margin to support the return trip from station,” NASA wrote in its update. “Only seven hours of free-flight time is needed to perform a normal end of mission, and Starliner currently has enough helium left in its tanks to support 70 hours of free flight activity following undocking.”

A “normal end of mission” is key here seeing as how Starliner had a hard time docking to the ISS. Starliner missed its first docking opportunity at 12:15 p.m. ET due to technical issues, prompting NASA to target another docking window an hour later. Five of the spacecraft thrusters failed during its approach, and four were subsequently recovered. The capsule finally docked with the ISS at 1:34 p.m. ET on June 6.

While it’s parked outside the ISS, engineers also are evaluating an RCS oxidizer isolation valve in the service module that’snot properly closed, according to NASA’s recent update. An RCS, or Reaction Control System, uses thrusters for attitude control and steering, while the oxidizer isolation valve regulates the flow of oxidizer, which is essential for burning fuel in the thrusters.Mission managers are continuing to work through the return plan, which includes assessments of flight rationale, fault tolerance, and potential operational mitigations for the remainder of the flight,” the space agency wrote.

Starliner is scheduled to undock from the orbital space station no earlier than June 18. The Crewed Flight Test is part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program and is meant to transport crew and cargo to and from the International Space Station (ISS) under a $US4.3 billion contract with the space agency. NASA’s other commercial partner, SpaceX, has so far launched eight crews to the space station.

The spacecraft’s first crewed flight was meant to usher in regular trips to the ISS, but NASA may require Starliner to undergo some fixes before it approves the capsule for normal operations.

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