Spacewalking astronauts prep station for new solar wings

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In this image taken from NASA video, NASA astronauts Kate Rubins, top, and Victor Glover work outside the International Space Station Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021. The
spacewalking astronauts ventured out Sunday to install support frames for new, high-efficiency solar panels arriving at the International Space Station later this year. (NASA via AP)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Spacewalking astronauts ventured out Sunday to install support frames for new, high-efficiency solar panels arriving at the International Space Station later this year.

NASA’s Kate Rubins and Victor Glover emerged from the orbiting lab lugging 8-foot (2.5-meter) duffle-style bags stuffed with hundreds of pounds of mounting brackets and struts. The equipment was so big and awkward that it had to be taken apart like furniture, just to get through the hatch.

“We know it’s super tight in there,” Mission Control radioed.

The astronauts headed with their unusually large load to the far port side of the station, careful not to bump into anything. That’s where the station’s oldest and most degraded solar wings are located.

Glover quickly began putting the struts together in the shape of a triangle, using a cordless power drill, and Rubins bolted the completed piece to the space station.

With more people and experiments flying on the space station, more power will be needed to keep everything running, according to NASA. The six new solar panels — to be delivered in pairs by SpaceX over the coming year or so — should boost the station’s electrical capability by as much as 30%.

Rubins and Glover had to assemble and bolt down the struts for the first two solar panels, due to launch in June.

The eight solar panels up there now are 12 to 20 years old — most of them past their design lifetime and deteriorating. Each panel is 112 feet (34 meters) long by 39 feet (12 meters) wide. Tip to tip counting the center framework, each pair stretches 240 feet (73 meters), longer than a Boeing 777′s wingspan.

Boeing is supplying the new roll-up panels, about half the size of the old ones but just as powerful thanks to the latest solar cell technology. They’ll be placed at an angle above the old ones, which will continue to operate.

A prototype was tested at the space station in 2017.

The views from Rubins’ new high-definition helmet camera were stunning, particularly those showing the vivid blue Earth 270 miles (435 kilometers) below. “Pretty fantastic,” observed Mission Control.

Sunday’s spacewalk was the third for infectious disease specialist Rubins and Navy pilot Glover — both of whom could end up flying to the moon.

They’re among 18 astronauts newly assigned to NASA’s Artemis moon-landing program. The next moonwalkers will come from this group.

Last week, Vice President Kamala Harris put in a congratulatory call to Glover, the first African American astronaut to live full time at the space station. NASA released the video exchange Saturday.

“The history making that you are doing, we are so proud of you,” Harris said. Like other firsts, Glover replied, it won’t be the last. “We want to make sure that we can continue to do new things,” he said.

Rubins will float back out Friday with Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi to wrap up the solar panel prep work, and to vent and relocate ammonia coolant hoses.

Glover and Noguchi were among four astronauts arriving via SpaceX in November. Rubins launched from Kazakhstan in October alongside two Russians. They’re all scheduled to return to Earth this spring.

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