International

Spacewalking astronauts plug leak, finish fixing detector

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Spacewalking astronauts plugged a leak in a cosmic ray detector outside the International Space Station on Saturday, completing a series of complex repairs to give the instrument new life.

The $2 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer could resume its hunt for elusive antimatter and dark matter by midweek.

Team members around the world expressed relief as NASA’s Andrew Morgan and Italy’s Luca Parmitano wrapped up work on the spectrometer. It was their fourth and final spacewalk since November to revive the instrument’s crippled cooling system.

“Congratulations … the AMS pump system is now leak tight,” tweeted the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, which helps run the spectrometer.

Mission Control cautioned it was too soon to declare success with the space station’s premier science instrument, but noted: “It still has a good heartbeat.”

Last month, Morgan and Parmitano installed new coolant pumps on the spectrometer. They went back out Saturday to check for any leaks in the plumbing.

Parmitano quickly discovered a leak in one of the eight coolant lines — the first one he tested — and tightened the fitting. “Our day just got a little more challenging,” Mission Control observed.

The line still leaked after a mandatory one-hour wait, and Parmitano tightened it again. Finally, success — the leak was gone. “Let us all take a breath,” Mission Control urged. By then, the astronauts were already halfway into their planned six-hour spacewalk.

Mission Control acknowledged the leak added some unwanted “drama” to the spacewalk. “Everybody’s hearts stopped,” Mission Control told the astronauts. Parmitano wondered aloud what his heart rate was when the leak erupted. “It either flat-lined or spiked, one of the two.”

Barring further trouble, the spectrometer — launched to the space station in 2011 — will have its coolant lines filled with carbon dioxide Sunday. One pump will be turned as early as Monday and the remaining three Tuesday. That could lead to the resumption of science observations by Wednesday.

NASA described the spectrometer spacewalks as the most complicated since the Hubble Space Telescope repair missions a couple decades ago. Unlike Hubble, this spectrometer was never intended for astronaut handling in orbit, and once it started faltering in 2014, it took NASA years to devise a repair plan.

Morgan and Parmitano had to cut into stainless steel pipes to bypass the spectrometer’s old, degraded coolant pumps on a previous spacewalk. Then they spliced the tubes into the new pumps — no easy job when working in bulky gloves.

“We are very excited for you to be finishing off all of the amazing work that you’ve already put into this AMS repair,” astronaut Jessica Meir radioed from inside, “and I think everyone’s excited to the prospects of what AMS has to offer once you guys finish off the work today.”

The massive 7 1/2-ton (6,800-kilogram) spectrometer was launched to the space station on NASA’s next-to-last shuttle flight. Until it was shut down late last year for the repair work, it had studied more than 148 billion charged cosmic rays. The project is led by Samuel Ting, a Nobel laureate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The repairs should allow the spectrometer to continue working for the rest of the life of the space station, or another five to 10 years. It was designed to operate for only three years.

NASA’s two other astronauts on board, Meir and Christina Koch, performed two spacewalks over the past 1 1/2 weeks to upgrade the space station’s solar power system.

Altogether, this station crew has gone out on nine spacewalks.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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Hamilton County’s ‘Wellness Unit’ part of nationwide effort to improve mental health among officers

NOBLESVILLE, Ind. (WISH) — An initiative to improve employee well-being at the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office is among a spate of efforts across the nation to address mental health concerns among officers.

Sheriff Dennis Quakenbush announced the department’s new “Wellness Unit”  — devoted to the physical, mental and spiritual health of its deputies, correctional officers and civilian employees — Friday in a Facebook post.

“Our guys really care about the public,” he said Monday in an interview with News 8. “When you see somebody who’s injured or victimized, it really impacts us… We’re only human.”

The Wellness Unit launched in January with funding approved by county council members and commissioners.

Appointments are held off-site at undisclosed locations to protect the privacy of employees. Supervisors are not briefed on which employees seek counseling or what they discuss during sessions.

Information gathered during counseling sessions will not be used to demote or discipline employees, and will only be disclosed if required by law, including when somebody poses an immediate danger to themselves or others.

The department’s entire staff will receive training related to suicide prevention, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, critical incidents, addiction, mindfulness and officer wellness, the sheriff said.

Nearly 1 in 4 police officers has thoughts of suicide at some point in their life, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI); the suicide rate for police officers is four times higher than the rate for firefighters.

Years of daily exposure to stress, trauma and tragedy can have other devastating consequences if appropriate coping skills are not developed, according to Susan Sherer-Vincent, a licensed clinical social worker, certified alcoholism counselor and licensed marriage and family therapist involved in launching the Wellness Unit.

“Think of the hurricanes that come in, in Florida, and think of the palm trees where they bend,” she explained. “But then, what happens afterwards? They go back up. That’s called resilience. We want our officers to bend, not break.”

Until approximately 3 to 5 years ago, officers were often conditioned to “pull [themselves] up by the bootstraps and go to the next call” instead of addressing personal struggles, Sherer-Vincent said.

Cultivating resiliency can be difficult within a law enforcement culture that equates mental health challenges with “weakness,” she said.

“[Officers] are trained to have the warrior mentality,” Sherer-Vincent told News 8. “Truly, they would have been made fun of [in the past for seeking counseling].”

She compared strong, silent officers with underdeveloped coping skills to California’s famed redwood trees.

“They’re pretty sturdy. But what would happen if you took an ax and hit those every single day, day after day, for years? They would eventually fall,” she said.

Quakenbush credits his wife, church and non-law enforcement friends with providing “a really good support system.”

“But sometimes, you need a professional,” he said, urging employees to “talk through” negative emotions instead of turning to alcohol and other substances for temporary relief.

Several internal cases that resulted in disciplinary action during his year-long tenure as sheriff may have been prevented with wellness-focused intervention, Quakenbush said.

He was unable to comment on personnel matters. 

Sources within the department indicated some of the cases involved employees with substance abuse issues that had escalated over time, possibly as a result of work-related stress that had gone unaddressed. 

“I wouldn’t say that [disciplinary action] was happening often,” Quakenbush told News 8. “But seeing it happen and knowing that we probably could have done something about it made it impactful and something that we wanted to make a priority.”

Hamilton County announced its Wellness Unit days after New York City police officials revealed plans to hire a team of psychologists to combat a spike in officer suicides.

On Feb. 13, Indianapolis police officials said they planned to swear in the department’s first full-time therapy dog by the end of March.

  • FIND SUPPORT: Learn more about supporting law enforcement wellness on NAMI.org

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