June 16, 2024

Two helium leaks have been detected on Boeing’s Starliner space capsule that is on its way to the International Space Station, the American space agency, Nasa, said late Wednesday.

The inert gas is used to power thrusters in the capsule carrying the two astronauts carried atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket that blasted off from Cape Canaveral on Wednesday on the giant rocket’s first piloted test flight.

Engineers discovered a small but persistent helium leak before launch that was deemed acceptable. Nasa said the two latest leaks were new and were discovered after the spacecraft arrived in orbit.

“Two of the affected helium valves have been closed and the spacecraft remains stable”, the agency said in a post on X.

News of the leaks first came from a NASA broadcast when astronauts Butch Willmore and Suni Williams were about to go to sleep and mission control informed them that they needed to close two valves.

“Looks like we’ve picked up a few more helium leaks,” mission control said. Astronaut Wilmore replied, “We’re ready to … find out exactly what you mean by picking up another helium leak, so give it to us.”

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

“We have some issues to monitor overnight in relation to the helium leaks that were just revealed, and we have very smart people down here on the ground who are going to look at this stuff and monitor it, but the vehicle are in a configuration right now where they are safe to fly,” Boeing aerospace engineer Brandon Burroughs said on the NASA broadcast, according to CBS News.

The Starliner mission is the first time the spacecraft has carried a crew into space. The two crew members are expected to spend just over 24 hours traveling to the space station and eight days with seven astronauts and astronauts already aboard the orbiting laboratory.

The current mission, a crewed flight test, is the product of a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin to compete with Elon Musk’s SpaceX Dragon capsule and is operated under Nasa’s commercial crew program.

The Starliner launch is only the sixth maiden voyage of an American spacecraft since the start of the space race in the late 1950s. “It started with Mercury, then with Gemini, then with Apollo, the spacecraft, then [SpaceX’s] Dragon – and now Starliner,” Nasa administrator Bill Nelson said last month.

The Starliner is a variant of the Atlas V military rocket that uses Russian-developed engines, but with two strap-on boosters. Two previous launch attempts were delayed, on May 6 and June 1, after earlier delays that included reports of helium leaks in the service module.

On the first attempt, a problem with a valve on the second stage, or upper part, of the rocket. On the second, a computer tripped an automatic grip just 3 minutes and 50 seconds into takeoff. This was later attributed to a single ground power supply failure within one of the launch control computers.

“We don’t start until it’s right,” Nelson said after the Starliner successfully blasted off Wednesday.

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