Researchers at the Center for Nondestructive Evaluation at Iowa State University in Ames are working on better ways to find leaks in spacecraft. The leaks can be caused by collisions with tiny meteorites or other space debris, but center director Bruce Thompson says they aren’t always easy to find.
Thompson says if your car tire has a leak in it, you hear the hissing sound and know the air is coming out. But, he says in a space vehicle the gas is leaking out into a vacuum and you don’t hear the leak. You can take a tire and put it in a tub of water to detect a leak — but that’s not a method that works in space.
He says even if you did know it was leaking because of a drop in cabin pressure, you would have no way to know where the leak was. He says many leak detectors are based on moving a microphone around to hear the sound of the leak. Thompson says in space you have to get much more precise in finding the leak.
He says there are sounds carried by the metal in the space structure, so you have to put high frequency microphones up to the metal to hear sounds. Thompson says you then have to process that sound to determine the location of the leak. Thompson says researchers at I-S-U are working on techniques that can pinpoint the leaks within seconds by using the vibrations detected in the skin of the spacecraft.