Air Leak Sensor For Spacecraft

An air leak sensor under development by an Iowa State research team is finally ready for installation as a prototype on a NASA spacecraft. Air leaks are notoriously difficult to find, because instruments and other gear cover most of the interior surface of spacecraft.

(ISU grad Clayton Anderson in ISS)

At present, astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) use microphones to listen for the telltale hiss of air escaping into space. However, most of the sound energy goes out into space along with the air.

To give you some idea of the scope of the problem, consider the leak that developed on the ISS in January of 2004. The leak, which turned out to be just one millimeter wide, took almost a week to find and patch. If the leak had not been found, the astronauts would have been forced to return home.

(Air leak sensor prototype in 2005 [1" square])

The new air leak sensor uses structure-borne vibration to detect the direction of the leak. The one-inch square sensor includes an array of 64 elements that detect vibration. The different elements pick up vibrations at different times. The data is analyzed by a computer to determine the direction of the leak; multiple sensors reduce the amount of time to detect a leak to a approximately one minute.

The research team is being lead by Dale Chimenti, and Iowa State University professor of aerospace engineering. The other team members are Stephen Holland, an assistant professor of aerospace engineering; Ronald Roberts, a scientist for Iowa State's Center for Nondestructive Evaluation; Ricky Reusser, a recent Iowa State graduate who earned his bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering; and Steven Sulhoff, a senior in aerospace engineering from Avoca.

(Air leak sensor package with backing)

Chimenti's team is now working with Invocon, a company that has already provided sensors to the ISS. If NASA approves Phase II funding, an air leak system will be prepared for installation.

Science fiction writer Robert Heinlein came up with a more colorful method in his 1948 short story Gentlemen, Be Seated, which described life in a lunar habitat.

There were perhaps a dozen bladder-like objects in the tunnel, the size and shape of toy balloons. They seemed to displace exactly their own weight of air; they floated without displaying much tendency to rise or settle. Konski batted one out of his way and answered me before I could ask.

"This piece of tunnel was pressurized today," he told me.

"These tag-alongs search out stray leaks. They're sticky inside. They get sucked up against a leak, break, and the goo gets sucked in, freezes and seals the leak."
(Read more about Heinlein's tag-alongs)

Update Aug-06-2014: Take a look at the entry for the smoke jets from Leo Zagat's 1932 short story The Great Dome of Mercury. End update.

Read more in the Iowa State news release; story via Roland.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 10/7/2007)

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