Broken oxygen generator threatens space station

No air, no spacemen

A UK space scientist has warned that a broken oxygen generator could spell disaster for the International Space Station (ISS).

The Elecktron unit, which converts waste water into hydrogen and oxygen gases, broke down suddenly on 8 September, and failed again over the weekend. As yet, Astronaut Mike Fincke and Cosmonaut Gennady Padalka have been unable to work out what's wrong. They got it working again for short periods, but it keeps shutting down.

Despite this, NASA says they are not in any danger. The two astronauts have plenty to breathe, thanks to oxygen canisters and oxygen-releasing candles.

If they can't fix the generator, however, the ISS could be in trouble.

Russia has been the only nation servicing the station since NASA grounded US shuttles after the Columbia disaster. It confirmed it will launch the craft to replace the outgoing crew on 11 Oct. The craft will orbit the Earth for 10 days before collecting Fincke and Padalka, and dropping off their replacements, Russian Salizhan Sharipov and NASA's Leroy Chiao.

The plan is that Sharipov and Chiao will live on the station for the next six months. But if the current crew can't fix the generator before they arrive, there will not be enough guaranteed oxygen on board to cover that period, the emergency oxygen supplies will only last for 140 days, and the mission could be in jeopardy.

André Balogh, a space expert at Imperial College London, who was involved in planning the European Space Agency's work on board, told Nature: "If [the station] is left uncrewed and unsupplied, things are going to get very difficult. If it is not continuously inhabited, its habitability is seriously damaged, and the longer they leave it without crew, the harder it will be to send people back."

A NASA spokesperson said the generator and the issues it raises will be discussed at a mission review meeting, on Friday. ®

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