(ORDO NEWS) — Extravehicular Mobility Units – EMU for short – were designed and built for spacewalks on NASA shuttles, which last flew in 2011.
EMUs are an integral part of the maintenance and modernization of the International Space Station (ISS), enabling the crew to live and work in the vacuum of space for extended periods of time (spacewalks regularly last 6 to 8 hours).
However, at the end of the last spacewalk on March 23, NASA astronaut Kayla Barron discovered water in the helmet of German astronaut Matthias Maurer while helping him remove his space suit.
In microgravity, water can clump and stick to the face and eyes, posing a serious hazard to an astronaut in a leaky spacesuit. As a precaution and prevention, future spacewalks have been postponed.
At a press conference on May 17, NASA officials gave details of the decision to suspend future extravehicular activity (EVA).
“Until we better understand what causes could have occurred during the last spacewalk with our EMU, we will not conduct EVAs,” said Dana Weigel (Space Station Deputy Program Manager).
Four planned EVAs were scheduled for 2022, two each in August and November. They were intended to upgrade the power systems of the station, but now they can only be carried out after a thorough check of the faulty spacesuit.
So far, the cause of the problem has not been found.
New spacesuit designs are currently being developed, but they are designed to operate on the lunar surface as part of the upcoming Artemis program. And since the ISS is due to be decommissioned in the next decade (currently 2031), the likelihood of new EMUs for the ISS is low.
According to a 2017 report from the Office of the Inspector General, eighteen EMUs were manufactured during the shuttle era, of which eleven remain, four of which are on station and the remainder being used on the ground for testing and training.
This doesn’t mean we won’t see more EVA in the near future. Further testing may reveal the source of the failure, and additional precautions will allow the EVA schedule to continue. Water samples from the failed suit will be returned to Earth for analysis – any identifiable contaminants they find will help determine where the leak came from.
Over the past decade, there have already been several upgrades to EMU suits to protect against water, which is necessary in suits for both drinking and cooling. In 2014, an absorbent pad was added to the back of the astronaut’s head, as well as a breathing tube for use in case water gets into the astronaut’s mouth and nostrils.
These changes were triggered by a similar incident in 2013, when astronaut Luca Parmitano found his helmet filled with water, making it difficult to see and breathe. He had to abort his spacewalk to deal with the dangerous situation before suffocation occurred.
In the near future, while the investigation is underway, NASA says it will consider using the EMU if needed in an emergency.
In addition, the Sokol suits used by Russian crew members aboard the ISS are still operational (Russian cosmonauts last performed spacewalks on April 28), providing a backup in case an emergency EVA becomes necessary.
Last week, additional shock-absorbing pads were delivered to the ISS aboard a Boeing Starliner to fit into EMU helmets, which made the first-ever successful docking with the ISS during an uncrewed test flight on May 20.
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