Capsules from Musk's SpaceX, containing spare food and parts that are being delivered to the International Space Station on the company's Falcon 9 rockets, may be doing far more harm than good, according to a new report from Wired. These deliveries - called Dragon capsules - may be contaminating the space station by outgassing the second that they arrive.
At the ISS, an onboard piece of scientific equipment called the SAGE III, used to measure ozone molecules and aerosols in the Earth's atmosphere, has seen its contamination sensors, generally used to measure how its environment could influence its readings, show spikes after three Dragon capsules docked at the ISS.
Something in the docking Dragon capsules has been outgassing, according to the article. Outgassing is when molecules from construction wind up being released into the atmosphere. It is what gives new cars their "new car smell" (you're smelling PVC emanating from parts and components, i.e. the dashboard, etc.) and was the basis behind Whitney Tilson‘s formaldehyde-based Lumber Liquidators short some years back.
Preliminary reports indicated that a Dragon capsule may have deposited up to 21 times the allowed amount of contamination on one sensor on the ISS. The sensors perked up yet again when the next Dragon capsule docked, with reports estimating that it may have left behind up to 32 times the limit of extra matter on another sensor.
Alan Tribble, author of Fundamentals of Contamination Control, told Wired: "There are volatile chemicals in those new materials that migrate through the material to the surface."
The outgas can also build up as a "greasy film" which can wind up causing problems for instruments like solar panels and data collecting devices that measure light. This is why most space station additions are built in clean rooms and baked to encourage the outgassing to take place on the ground.
Meg Abraham of the Aerospace Corporation says: “It’s an intense process and considered extremely critical. Everyone thinks about this.”
Everyone except for SpaceX, apparently.
However, it is true that sometimes even preplanning for outgassing doesn’t always work. For instance, parts of the Hubble telescope had seen their ultraviolet light detection become degraded after outgassing. It’s been a problem that NASA has been dealing with for a long time, but the Dragon capsules, of course, belong to Musk's SpaceX. NASA now has to deal with the consequences of private company products potentially screwing up new space station instruments that cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.
As soon as the SAGE III monitoring device got onto the space station, it registered excessive outgassing from an onboard Dragon capsule. After a subsequent Dragon capsule arrived, contamination monitoring package frequencies used to measure outgassing shifted steadily, according to a report posted on NASA's technical report server. These changes were acting as potential warnings of contamination to the instruments that NASA had on board.
Before a 13th Dragon capsule docked, scientists also reconfigured the tests to rule out whether or not the outgassing could be coming from materials on the outside of the capsule, instead of inside. Even after this change, the Dragon capsule seemed to be the problem - and only seemed to get worse the more sunlight shone on it.
During this 13th mission, one sensor may have been sprayed with up to 73 times what’s allowed on board. And astonishingly, according to Wired, "for the month or so that Dragon was docked at the Station, two of the sensors individually detected more contamination than is allowed—total, from everything on the Station—in a whole year."
For now, NASA seems to be rolling with the punches, though it is uncertain how this could affect future SpaceX business with NASA.
The NASA/Boeing team that was put together to analyze this type of data commented: "NASA has communicated with the Station payload community its findings, and payload developers have responded either that their instruments have experienced no impact or they have taken precautions to mitigate impacts to their science."
Now, has anyone checked the "new car smell" levels on that Tesla floating around in outer space?