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Spacewalking astronauts boosting station’s solar power

  • June 16, 2021

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US astronauts conduct a spacewalk at the International Space Station

Spacewalking astronauts resumed work to install powerful, new solar panels outside the International Space Station on Wednesday, after a brief interruption caused by problems with one of their suits.

NASA stressed that astronaut Shane Kimbrough was safe the entire time, despite problems with his suit’s display control panel and a potential pressure issue.

Mission Control sent Kimbrough back into the station’s airlock three hours into the spacewalk where he successfully restarted the blank display panel on the front of his suit. Then a fleeting pressure spike was noted in the suit’s cooling system.

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Kimbrough rejoined French astronaut Thomas Pesquet at the work site, and Mission Control gave them the all-clear to proceed with their work.

“We just want to be super safe here,” Mission Control radioed.

It’s the first of a series of spacewalks to equip the aging orbital outpost with smaller but stronger solar wings. The electrical boost is needed to accommodate the paying passengers expected to drop by, beginning with a Russian film crew this fall.

NASA put extra safety precautions in place as Kimbrough and Pesquet worked on the station’s primary power grid, to avoid an electrical shock. The duo conducted the most hazardous parts of the spacewalk on the nighttime side of Earth, to prevent the station’s old solar panels from soaking up sunlight and generating power. Metal surfaces on their spacesuits were covered to avoid any contact.

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Launched by SpaceX earlier this month, the first of these new solar panels was going to be installed alongside the station’s oldest electricity-producing wings, in continuous operation for more than 20 years.

The astronauts had to lug the folded-up solar wing —10 feet long and 4 feet wide (3 meters long by 1 meter wide) — to the work site on the far left end of the station. Once anchored in place, the solar panel was designed to roll out like a red carpet. It was expected to take six minutes to extend to its full 63 feet (19 meters) in length.

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Pesquet and Kimbrough will go back out Sunday to install a second solar panel. Four more will be launched to reenergize the space station.

NASA wants to keep the space station churning out science research through this decade, and space tourists will further tax the power system. A Russian movie director and actress are due to visit in October for filming, followed by wealthy entrepreneurs launching from Kazakhstan and Cape Canaveral as part of a push to open up the private space market.

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