Spacesuit Voltage Drop Forces Early End to Russian Spacewalk

Spacesuit Voltage Drop Forces Early End to Russian Spacewalk

A Russian spacewalk at the International Space Station today was forced to end early when one of the spacesuits experienced a drop in battery voltage. Cosmonaut Oleg Artemyev was ordered to return to the safety of the airlock immediately although Russian and U.S. officials insist he was in no danger. It is too early to tell when Russian spacewalks will resume. U.S. spacewalks already are suspended due to problems with NASA’s spacesuits.

Artemyev and Denis Matveev were scheduled for an approximately 6.5 hour spacewalk to continue activating the European Robotic Arm on the Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM), called Nauka, that arrived at ISS last summer. Their main task was to install two cameras on the arm, relocate a panel, and remove restraints that were needed to secure two end effectuators (“hands”) during launch.

Russia’s Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM), or Nauka, attached to the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

What turned out to be a 4 hour 1 minute spacewalk began at 9:53 am ET and ended at 1:54 pm ET when both cosmonauts were back inside the airlock. This was Artemyev’s seventh and Matveev’s third spacewalk, or extravehicular activity (EVA).

Configuration of the ISS showing which countries provided which hardware. Note that the Functional Cargo Block (also known as FGB or Zarya) is a U.S. module even though it has a Russian name. It was built by Russia, but paid for by the United States. Not shown is Russia’s Prichal multi-node docking port launched in November 2021 apparently after this illustration was most recently updated. Prichal is attached to the Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM, also known as Nauka). Russia’s Service Module is also known as Zvezda, MRM-1 as Rassvet, and MRM-2 as Poisk. Illustration credit: NASA

At 2 hours and 17 minutes into the EVA, Artemyev’s Orlan spacesuit began showing unusual battery readings. Russian mission control in Moscow directed Artemyev to return to the airlock immediately while Matveev remained outside to finish up various tasks.

The European Robotic Arm installed on Russia’s Multipurpose Laboratory Module, or Nauka, prior to launch. Credit: ESA

Russia’s space state corporation Roscosmos made light of the matter afterwards, saying the “situation was under the control of Russian specialists and did not threaten the health of the cosmonaut.” NASA followed suit, reporting that the “duo was never in any danger during the operations.”

The EVA was livestreamed on NASA TV. Bill Harwood of CBS News and Anatoly Zak of were live-tweeting the event and conveyed the conversations between the cosmonauts and Mission Control Center (MCC) Moscow.

Zak told that it’s too early to know what impact this will have. “We need to know more about this situation to make a judgment,” he said, pointing out that spacesuits are mini-spacecraft. Many things can go wrong “including just sensor failures or false alarms, but obviously specialists can’t take any risks when it comes to such a critical parameter as power supply,”

The Russian spacesuits are completely different from their U.S. counterparts and usually quite reliable. The original design dates back to 1977, but has been upgraded several times since.

NASA’s spacesuits date back to the same era and after four decades are showing their age. In 2013, ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano experienced an extremely serious water incursion into his helmet from the suit’s cooling system during his spacewalk. He later described it as feeling “like a goldfish in a fishbowl.” NASA diagnosed and fixed that problem and added safety precautions such as placing an absorbent pad at the back of the helmet and a breathing tube to access oxygen elsewhere in the suit. But problems persist. In March 2022, another ESA astronaut, Matthias Maurer, had a small amount water in his helmet after an EVA.

As in the case of the 2013 episode, NASA suspended all of its EVAs — unless there’s an emergency — until they determine the cause. They’ll get a first hand look soon. Maurer’s spacesuit is returning to Earth on SpaceX’s Cargo Dragon, SpX-25, which will undock tomorrow at 11:05 am ET.

NASA recently contracted with two companies to design and make new spacesuits for use on the ISS and for the Artemis lunar program, but they will not be ready for some time.

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