Cristoforetti and five other crew members donned emergency masks and hurried to the Russian side of the orbiting lab after the alert at around 10.00am (Rome time), closing the hatch to the US side behind them.
While the Russian space agency told news outlets in Moscow that the cause was a toxic ammonia leak, Nasa said there was no data to confirm that, and stressed that the crew was safe. Ammonia is used in the cooling and heating systems at the orbiting outpost.
Nasa suspects that a “false indication” is at the root of the problem said Jim Kelly of mission control in Houston, Texas, speaking to US astronaut and space station commander Barry Wilmore in an exchange broadcast on Nasa television.
“Big picture perspective, we are still trying to figure out exactly what happened. We are not entirely convinced that this is an ammonia leak,” Kelly said. A sensor problem or a computer relay issue could have led to the alarm, he added.
“It is becoming a stronger case that this is a false indication, which is great news,” Kelly said.
— Intl. Space Station (@Space_Station) January 14, 2015
The six astronauts taking shelter in the Russian segment have enough food for at least a week, Nasa said.
“Hey everybody, thanks for your concern. We're all safe & doing well in the Russian segment,” Cristoforetti said on Twitter.
— Sam Cristoforetti (@AstroSamantha) January 14, 2015
Problem in loop
The problem became apparent when flight controllers in Houston “saw an increase in pressure in the station's water loop for thermal control system B then later saw a cabin pressure increase that could be indicative of an ammonia leak in the worst case scenario,” Nasa said on its website.
Russia's space agency blamed the evacuation on a leak of a “toxic substance was emitted from a cooling system into the station's atmosphere” in the US segment of the station, the agency said in a statement. A representative of the Russian mission control center told Russian news agencies that the substance was ammonia.
The International Space Station (ISS) is a rare area of US-Russian cooperation that has not been hit by the crisis in Ukraine, which has prompted Washington to impose sanctions on Moscow. In total 16 countries work on the ISS, whose cost is mainly shouldered by the United States.
Since Nasa phased out the space shuttle system in 2011, it depends entirely on Russia to send its astronauts to the ISS.
The Expedition 42 crew had been awake for about two hours before the alarm sounded, and was at work unloading the SpaceX Dragon cargo carrier which arrived days ago with more than 2.5 tons of supplies and science experiments.
Two women and four men are on board the space station, making up a crew that hails from Russia, the United States and Italy. They include Wilmore, Cristoforetti, Elena Serova, Alexander Samoukutyaev, Terry Virts and Anton Shkaplerov.