All hands on deck as NASA works on space station glitch

Space station cooling system malfunctions, but the crew is not in danger

It's all hands on deck at NASA, as engineers try to figure out what is causing a cooling system malfunction that has been plaguing the International Space Station since Wednesday.

NASA reported that the crew living on the space station, as well as the scientific experiments being done there, are not in danger.

"At this point we're in the early stages of trying to understand it," NASA's Mission Management Team Chairman Kenny Todd said in a YouTube video interview. "I think everything that we can do is being done. The system is stable. The crew is in good shape. All the right folks on the ground are looking at the problem and trying to assess what the root cause is."

According to the space agency, the pump module on one of the space station's two external cooling loops automatically shut down when it reached a pre-set temperature limit. The loops are used to circulate ammonia, a coolant, around the outside of the orbiter to keep both internal and external equipment cool.

Engineers suspect a flow control valve inside the pump is malfunctioning.

While NASA noted that the space station is not in any danger, the ground team moved some electrical systems from the problematic loop to a second one. They also powered down some non-critical systems inside the Harmony node and two laboratories.

NASA's Johnson Space Center tweeted Thursday afternoon, "Ground team analyzing #ISS cooling system issue while #Exp38 crew continues research, maintenance tasks today."

The space agency is holding off on making a decision about whether or not Orbital Sciences' Cygnus commercial cargo craft will be allowed to make its scheduled launch and head toward the space station next week.

At this point, Cygnus is scheduled to launch Dec. 18 from Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia and then rendezvous with the station on Dec. 21. The decision to launch or not will depend on what is found to be wrong with the coolant system on the orbiter and what is required to repair it.

Flight Engineer Michael Hopkins
Flight Engineer Michael Hopkins speaks into a microphone while working in the Harmony node of the International Space Station. NASA has powered down some non-critical systems in the node because of a coolant problem. (Image: NASA)

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at  @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is

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