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Breathing Easy in Space Is Never Easy

Problems with oxygen generators aboard the space station could have big implications

8 min read

During the hectic coming-and-going of visiting space crews aboard the International Space Station in September, the startling bulletin about a fire in its all-important oxygen-generating system was quickly denied and just as quickly overtaken by events. But the emergency--which, it turns out, was not a fire--has profound implications for the space station’s immediate performance and long-term survival.

On 26 October, the Russian robot space freighter Progress safely arrived at the station carrying supplies and some very special spare parts. Normally, there is tension and suspense during such dynamic space operations, but this time the tension only gets higher after the docking. The question is: Will the spare parts, added after the earlier oxygen system incident, fix the problem and allow the recently resumed orbital assembly to continue as planned?

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Two men fix metal rods to a gold-foiled satellite component in a warehouse/clean room environment

Technicians at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems facilities in Redondo Beach, Calif., work on a mockup of the JWST spacecraft bus—home of the observatory’s power, flight, data, and communications systems.


For a deep dive into the engineering behind the James Webb Space Telescope, see our collection of posts here.

When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reveals its first images on 12 July, they will be the by-product of carefully crafted mirrors and scientific instruments. But all of its data-collecting prowess would be moot without the spacecraft’s communications subsystem.

The Webb’s comms aren’t flashy. Rather, the data and communication systems are designed to be incredibly, unquestionably dependable and reliable. And while some aspects of them are relatively new—it’s the first mission to use Ka-band frequencies for such high data rates so far from Earth, for example—above all else, JWST’s comms provide the foundation upon which JWST’s scientific endeavors sit.

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