Two astronauts will make a hastily-planned spacewalk to try to fix an ammonia leak in the International Space Station’s power system.
Officials emphasised that the six-member crew was not in danger.
The leak in a cooling system was discovered on Thursday when “snowflakes” of ammonia were seen flying away from the station.
Spacewalks are rarely done on such short notice, but the US space agency wanted to check out the leak before all the ammonia escaped. They also want to take advantage of a spacewalking crew member who is about to return home.
Tom and Chris in the final stages of readying the suits and airlock for their spacewalk. A full day's prep. pic.twitter.com/7vBlRheZBF— Chris Hadfield (@Cmdr_Hadfield) May 11, 2013
The station can operate fine with only seven electrical channels, space station programme manager Michael Suffredini said. Power from the affected panel was rerouted to the other seven systems.
Mr Suffredini said the chief suspect for the leak was space junk hitting a cooling tube, but the area had a slow small leak for many years that suddenly accelerated on Thursday.
“You’re talking a very, very, very small hole,” he said at a news conference.
While he described it as a “serious situation”, he characterised it more as an annoyance.
Nasa hopes the leak is in a small pump box. During the six-hour spacewalk today, US astronauts Chris Cassidy and Tom Marshburn will replace the 260lb box with a nearby spare.
While Nasa has had to do impromptu spacewalks before, the have not been done on the space station since it was completely built and operating as a finished lab, said chief flight director Norm Knight.
Station commander Chris Hadfield of Canada told Nasa flight controllers that the crew was ready for the spacewalk.
“It’s the right thing to do,” he radioed down to Earth.
If the cooling system cannot be repaired in today’s spacewalk, it can be fixed in later spacewalks, Mr Suffredini said. Nasa can and has operated the station fully on seven power channels, he said.
But that would leave the station little margin for error. If there are more problems, some experiments on board may have to be shut down to conserve power.
Nasa spokesman Rob Navias said the fix was what the agency calls one of the “Big 12” types of emergency repair work that all spacewalking astronauts train for in advance.
In 2009, Cassidy and Marshburn flew to the space station on the shuttle Endeavour and walked in space together to swap out a battery in the same location, so “they know this worksite inside and out”, Mr Navias said.
Marshburn, Hadfield and Russia’s Roman Romanenko are due to return to Earth on Monday.