Ammonia leaks are a significant concern for the International Space Station (ISS). The ISS has external transport lines that direct liquid ammonia to radiator panels where the ammonia is cooled and then brought back to thermal control units. These transport lines and radiator panels are subject to stress from micrometeorites and temperature variations, and have developed small leaks. The ISS can accommodate these leaks at their present rate, but if the rate increased by a factor of ten, it could potentially deplete the ammonia supply and impact the proper functioning of the ISS thermal control system, causing a serious safety risk.
A proposed ISS astrophysics instrument, the Lobster X-Ray Monitor, can be used to detect and localize ISS ammonia leaks. Based on the optical design of the eye of its namesake crustacean, the Lobster detector gives simultaneously large field of view and good position resolution. The leak detection principle is that the nitrogen in the leaking ammonia will be ionized by X-rays from the Sun, and then emit its own characteristic X-ray signal. The Lobster instrument, nominally facing zenith for its astrophysics observations, can be periodically pointed towards the ISS radiator panels and some sections of the transport lines to detect and localize the characteristic X-rays from the ammonia leaks. Another possibility is to use the ISS robot arm to grab the Lobster instrument and scan it across the transport lines and radiator panels. In this case the leak detection can be made more sensitive by including a focused 100-microampere electron beam to stimulate X-ray emission from the leaking nitrogen. Laboratory studies have shown that either approach can be used to locate ammonia leaks at the level of 0.1 kg/day, a threshold rate of concern for the ISS.
The Lobster instrument uses two main components: (1) a microchannel plate optic (also known as a Lobster optic) that focuses the X-rays and directs them to the focal plane, and (2) a CCD (charge coupled device) focal plane detector that reads out the position and energy of the X-rays, allowing a determination of the leak location. The effective area of the detection system is ≈2 cm2 at 1 keV. The Lobster astrophysics instrument, designed for monitoring the sky for Xray transients, gives high sensitivity along with large field of view (30×30°) and good spatial resolution (1 arc min). This offers a significant benefit for detecting ISS ammonia leaks, since the goal is to localize small leaks as efficiently as possible.
This work was done by Jordan Camp, Scott Barthelmy, and Gerry Skinner of Goddard Space Flight Center. GSC-16686-1