Thu, Jun 14, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Space station crew installs solar panels

NO DUCT TAPE Astronauts from the US shuttle 'Atlantis' will spend two additional days in space to make minor repairs to the shuttle's slightly damaged thermal blanket


In this photo provided by NASA, space shuttle Atlantis astronaut Jim Reilly participates in the mission's first planned session of extravehicular activity, as construction resumes on the solar panels on the International Space Station, on Monday.


The International Space Station spread its new solar wings on Tuesday, boosting power generation capacity after astronauts of the US shuttle Atlantis wired them up during a space walk.

Television pictures broadcast by NASA showed the vast panels unfurling after they were put in place by the space station's robotic arm and connected by two space walkers on Monday.

The accordion-like installations, brought from Earth in the hold of Atlantis to the station hundreds of kilometers above the Earth, then finished their slow, delicate spreading on Tuesday at 1900GMT, the US space agency said.

They will boost the capacity of the station to generate power so it can host new modules from Europe and Japan.

The next foray outside the station was to be held yesterday.

Mission specialists Patrick Forrester and Steven Swanson were due to step out yesterday at 1803GMT on the second of the mission's four space walks.

During a scheduled outing of six-and-a-half hours, the astronauts plan to fold up another, older solar array to allow the new array to rotate and catch a maximum of sunshine for electricity production. The older array is to be installed on a different part of the station on a future shuttle mission.

NASA said on Monday that it would add two days to the mission to allow astronauts to repair a thermal blanket on the vessel's exterior, which was slightly damaged by the extreme air pressure of blasting through Earth's atmosphere.

Astronauts may use a sewing kit normally reserved for space-suits to repair the 10cm-by-15cm peeled-back section, which is over an engine pod near the spacecraft's tail, NASA managers said.

No final decision has been made on when the repair will be made or what repair technique will be used.

Engineers have looked at using duct tape or other adhesives to secure the blanket, but are leaning toward a method which would use stainless steel wire as thread and an instrument with a rounded end resembling a small darning needle.

"Duct tape doesn't work in the vacuum of space," John Shannon, the mission management team's chairman, said on Tuesday.

NASA engineers planned to try out the different method in heat and wind tunnel tests.

The thermal blankets are used to protect the shuttle from searing heat during re-entry. Engineers do not think the intense heat could burn through the graphite structure underneath it and jeopardize the spacecraft.

But it could damage the shuttle, requiring post-landing repairs that could delay the three flights to the space station that NASA has scheduled for the remainder of the year.

"This is the right thing to do," commander Rick Sturckow said from space on Tuesday night.

The rest of the shuttle appeared to be in fine shape, NASA said.

Shannon said an investigation has started into how the blanket was secured before launch.

Two sensors on the shuttle wing's leading edge had detected what seemed to be an impact by space debris, but engineers don't believe anything actually hit the spacecraft's wing. The highly sensitive sensors have been known to register "ghost" detections in the past from other causes.

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