NASA has delayed the launch of a cargo shipment to the International Space Station (ISS) for at least two weeks after black mould was found on two fabric bags that were due to make the trip.
The bags were to be used for packing clothing, food and other supplies, the US space agency said, but it did not want to risk sending contaminated supplies to the vessel.
The source of the mould is currently being investigated, but the fungal growths are common in the humid climates found in Florida, the launch site for the shipment.
Both NASA and Lockheed Martin are looking into the issue. The latter firm prepares the cargo shipments for launch aboard two commercial carriers, Orbital ATK and the privately owned SpaceX.
A NASA spokesman said that an Orbital Cygnus cargo ship was more than halfway packed for the launch, which was scheduled for 10 March, when the mould was found during routine inspections and microbial sampling.
NASA and Lockheed have decided to unpack the cargo in order to disinfect all the bags before then repacking everything aboard the capsule, hence the delayed launch which is now due to occur in late March.
Although it is not thought that the mould would have done the astronauts aboard the ISS any harm if it had reached the station, the decision was taken to clean the bags as a precaution.
NASA is still assessing if the delay will impact the next planned cargo run by SpaceX, which has not made a delivery since its failed launch last year, when a defective brace inside the upper stage of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket resulted in a post lift-off explosion that destroyed a capsule carrying supplies intended for the ISS.
The ISS has so far cost $100bn (£69bn) spread across a number of different countries and flies about 250 miles (400 km) above the Earth’s surface.