Liam Parke

BSc(Hons), MSc


Scientist

“Real-time online analysis of these compounds would have enabled accurate and precise tracking of this hazard without the need to pause between measurements as was seen in the SpaceX live stream.”


SpaceX made history this month with the successful return of astronauts Robert “Bob” Behnken and Douglas “Doug” Hurley from the international space station (ISS) on board the commercially operated spacecraft, Crew Dragon Endeavour. However, abnormally high levels of a toxic and explosive fuel in the service module delayed their egress by approximately 30 minutes. Real-time monitoring with SIFT-MS would have enabled fast and precise monitoring of these ambient VOC and inorganic compounds, providing a high-quality data stream for decision makers.

As the Crew Dragon Endeavour arrived back to earth on Saturday, completing the first ever manned commercial spaceflight to the ISS,  Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley prepared to take their first breath of fresh air in 64 days. However, a significant problem was discovered, extending the astronauts  confinement in the capsule for a further 30 minutes:  Abnormally high levels of NTO (Dinitrogen tetroxide) were detected in the service module of the spacecraft.

NTO is powerful oxidiser and is used in the spacecraft in combination with MMH (monomethylhydrazine) as a hypergolic propellant. These compounds react spontaneously and vigorously with one another, a reaction which is exploited to manoeuvre Crew Dragon Endeavour through space. Leaks of these fuels are extremely hazardous due to their explosive potential, furthermore both NTO and MMH are highly toxic.

In 1975 exposure to NTO fumes resulted in the hospitalization of 3 US astronauts and MMH is a known carcinogen. As a result, air quality monitoring, for the detection of these fuel leaks, is a key safety consideration for astronauts and recovery crews alike

MMH and NTO can both be quantified by a Syft Voice200Ultra in real-time, which offers the best opportunity for a successful outcome in chemical leak scenarios. Continuously up-to-date data on a situation, can improve decision making and affords immediate feedback on any measures taken.

For the Crew Dragon Endeavour, while not a full-scale leak, sufficient concentrations were detected (ppm range) to breach personal exposure limits and recovery engineers had to don breathing apparatus prior to continuing work on the craft. Despite an initial plan for a 60-second purge of the service module, 30 minutes of purging was required before Bob and Doug were liberated from the capsule. Real-time online analysis of these compounds would have enabled accurate and precise tracking of this hazard without the need to pause between measurements as was seen in the SpaceX live stream.

Syft Technologies would like to congratulate SpaceX on the success of their first crewed mission.

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