Alarms Sound on the ISS as Astronauts Wake to Smell of Burning Plastic

Experts previously warned the ISS could suffer irreparable failures due to aging equipment.
Chris Young

Smoke alarms were triggered on the International Space Station (ISS) as it orbited the Earth at 17,100 mph (27,600 km/h). The alarms rang as the crew woke to the smell of burning plastic and saw smoke inside the station during what should have been a routine battery recharge, a BBC report explains. 

The incident occurred on the ISS's Russian-built Zvezda module, which includes living quarters as well as life support systems. It comes shortly after a number of other technical failures aboard the aging space station in recent months and years, and only days after Russian official Vladimir Solovyov told state media, on Sept. 1, that the ISS could suffer irreparable failures in the future due to its outdated equipment and hardware.

The smell of burning plastic spread to the ISS's US segment

The smoke was detected aboard the ISS during a recharge of the station's batteries. Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, has confirmed that all systems are back to normal, though it is still investigating the incident. The crew is reported to have returned to "regular training." NASA, meanwhile, stated that a spacewalk planned for later in the day will still go ahead, with two Russian cosmonauts working on the Nauka science module, which recently arrived to replace the Russian Pirs module.

According to reports, the smell of burning plastic spread from the Russian section to the US segment. There are currently seven astronauts aboard the ISS. Four of these, Thomas Pesquet, K. Megan McArthur, Shane Kimbrough, Aki Hoshide, launched to the ISS in April aboard SpaceX's Crew-2 mission, the private space company's third astronaut launch.

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Last month, Russian cosmonauts discovered new cracks on the ISS that could "spread over time" according to Solovyov, who is chief engineer of Energia, the lead developer for Russia's ISS modules. In July, a software glitch caused jet thrusters on the ISS's Russian research module Nauka to ignite, throwing the space station out of its intended orbit for a number of hours until the trajectory was corrected via progress thrusters. Last year, meanwhile, cosmonauts used floating tea leaves to help pinpoint an air leak on the Russian segment of the ISS. According to Solovyov, at least 80 percent of in-flight systems on the ISS's Russian segment have passed their expiry date.

The ISS started operations in 2000 as part of a joint project between space agencies of the US, Russia, Canada, Japan, and the European Space Agency (ESA), ushering in a new era of scientific discovery. This may soon be coming to an end as Russia recently stated it plans to launch its own orbital station by 2025, with international agreements on the operation of the ISS set to expire in 2024. Though Roscosmos has not fully confirmed whether it will cease to collaborate with NASA after the ISS ends operations, Russia recently turned down an invitation to work with the US on its Gateway lunar orbit station, instead opting to partner with China on a separate lunar station. With the ISS nearing the end of its operations, we may be fast approaching the end of an unprecedented era in global scientific operation.