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Spacesuit problems delay astronauts’ installation of new solar panels at space station

The International Space Station is being outfitted with new, more powerful solar panels.
French astronaut Thomas Pesquet, top center, and NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough take a spacewalk to install new, more powerful solar panels for the International Space Station.
(NASA / Associated Press)

Spacesuit problems prevented astronauts from completing the installation Wednesday of new, more powerful solar panels for the International Space Station.

NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough encountered a pair of spacesuit issues midway through the seven-hour spacewalk, forcing him to temporarily retreat back into the airlock to reset his equipment. The interruption put Kimbrough and French astronaut Thomas Pesquet an hour behind, then they had trouble trying to unfold the solar panel’s booms before time finally ran out.

The two will try to venture back out Sunday. But it’s unclear whether that will be delayed, or whether the astronauts will wrap up work on the first solar panel or get started on a second one.

NASA wants to reenergize the aging space station as demand to visit grows. But there’s no immediate urgency to do so, said Mission Control commentator Rob Navias, with the old solar panels providing plenty of power for now. They’ll continue to operate in a degraded state, even after the new ones are up and running.

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Mission Control emphasized that Kimbrough was never in danger, despite problems with his suit’s display control panel and a fleeting pressure spike in the cooling system. His control panel came back on, and Mission Control continued to monitor his suit’s cooling system.

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

It was the first of a series of spacewalks to equip the orbital outpost with six 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 to avoid an electrical shock as Kimbrough and Pesquet worked on the station’s primary power grid. The duo conducted the most hazardous parts of the spacewalk on the nighttime side of Earth, when the station’s older solar panels would not be soaking up sunlight and generating power. Metal surfaces on their spacesuits were covered to avoid any contact.

Launched by SpaceX earlier this month, the first of the new solar panels will operate alongside the station’s oldest electricity-producing wings, which have been in continuous operation for more than 20 years.

The astronauts had to lug the bundled solar wing —10 feet long and 4 feet wide — to the work site on the far end of the station. They managed to bolt it into place, but could not unfold the booms because of a problem in the mounting bracket.

Once properly installed, the solar panel is designed to roll out like a red carpet 63 feet long.

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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