Astronauts forge ahead with big job in space

Astronauts plowed ahead on Monday with the mammoth job of moving a 17,5-ton solar-array truss on the International Space Station, a task made even more crucial following the discovery of contamination in an important part of the orbiting lab’s power system.

A spacewalking astronaut on Sunday found metal shavings inside a joint that is needed to turn a set of solar power panels. Astronauts used a magnet to determine the shavings were metallic.

The rotary joint, launched and installed just four months ago, controls the huge solar-panel wings on the right side of the space station to make sure they are facing the sun. It has been experiencing electrical-current spikes in the past one-and-a-half months.

Nasa officials have limited the joint’s motion to prevent the debris from causing permanent damage, but that also limits the system’s ability to generate power for the station.

The glitch raises the stakes for the Discovery crew’s ongoing attempt to move the giant solar-array truss from one part of the orbiting complex to another.

Failing to install the girder or to unfurl its enormous folded solar wings could cause problems for the planned December installation of the European Space Agency’s science laboratory, named Columbus. The lab is supposed to latch on to the new Harmony module that Discovery delivered last week.

Mike Suffredini, Nasa’s space-station programme manager, said it is too soon to know whether the joint trouble will affect future flights. “We have lots of time to work through this problem. It’s not an immediate issue,” he said on Sunday afternoon.

On Monday, the astronauts were using two robotic arms to move the girder into place for its scheduled installation during a spacewalk the following day. The crew used the station’s robotic arm to detach the truss from the station on Sunday.

Early on Monday, astronauts used the shuttle’s robotic arm to grab hold of the truss so the station’s robotic arm could be free to inch along 24m of rail to a spot near the girder’s future home.

Later in the day, as music played, the shuttle’s arm passed the truss back to the station’s arm to await installation on Tuesday. “It’s a heck of a lot more fun flying the arm with some Huey Lewis in the background,” radioed astronaut Daniel Tani.

The schedule for Tuesday’s spacewalk also includes time for an inspection of the joint for the left solar wings. That joint is working fine. Spacewalker Scott Parazynski has been asked to take pictures and samples like those gathered on Sunday at the other joint so Nasa can compare the findings.

The astronauts have spare parts for the joint with them in orbit, including extra bearings.

But space-station flight director Heather Rarick said late on Sunday that the astronauts probably won’t have time to do repairs while Discovery is docked to the orbital lab. Even more inspections may be added to the two other planned spacewalks, and the three station crew members could troubleshoot later.

Discovery is set to undock from the station on Sunday and land on November 6. Mission managers have determined the ship’s thermal shielding is in good shape for re-entry.—Sapa-AP

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