Thursday, July 23, 2009

Live In Orbit: Astronauts To Inaugurate Station Porch

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The combined crews of shuttle Endeavour and the International Space Station will mark a key construction milestone today as the outpost's new porch is christened with the addition of its first science experiments.

Operating a robot arm at a control station inside the $1 billion Kibo laboratory, Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata will do the honors.

Wakata will use the crane to lift an x-ray observatory and a space environment experiment onto the porch. Then he'll put in place a communications system that will link Kibo with Japan's Mission Control Room at the Tsukuba Space Center outside Tokyo.

The crane operation will follow extensive testing Wakata has conducted since his arrival on the station in March. Wakata is the first Japanese astronaut to serve a long tour of duty on the outpost.

"Now we are very much confident to proceed with the first-time operational use of the Kibo robot arm," said Tetsuro Yokoyama, deputy manager of the Kibo project with Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

Endeavour mission specialists Dave Wolf and Chris Cassidy set the stage Wednesday for the grand opening of Kibo's porch, a pallet-like platform that sports attachment points for up to nine refrigerator-sized science research packages.

The unpressurized platform also is equipped with mounting points for two Kibo systems packages, and another attachment point is available for temporary storage.

The inaugural users:

++An x-ray observatory that will scan the entire sky every 90 minutes with two different detectors. The detectors will observe x-ray emissions from high-energy celestial objects radiating hot gas at extremely high temperatures.

Among them: galaxy clusters, black holes, supernova remnants, stars and neutron stars. Some interplanetary bodies in the solar system also emit x-rays, most notably, the moon, which reflects solar x-rays from the sun.

++A space science experiment that will measure the environment around the space station, gauging levels of plasma, heavy ions, high-energy light particles, atomic oxygen, and cosmic dust.

++A switching station that will link the Kibo lab module with the Tokyo control room through Japan's own data relay satellite.

The work will all but complete assembly of the Kibo science research facility, which is the largest at the international outpost.

Construction began with the delivery in March 2008 of an attic-like warehouse that now sits atop the Kibo lab module; the lengthy lab was hauled up in June 2008.

Endeavour's astronauts added the porch over the past weekend. All that remains is the spacewalking installation of two Kibo TV cameras.

Cassidy and Wolf prepped the experiment packages for installation during a spacewalk that was cut short on Wednesday.

Flight surgeons at NASA's Mission Control Center noted elevated carbon dioxide levels in Cassidy's spacesuit and ordered them to halt work and return to the station's U.S. Quest airlock.

Mission managers blamed the trouble on problems with the carbon dioxide scrubber in Cassidy's suit.

Cassidy and Wolf planned to install four of six new solar batteries at the far left end of the station's central truss. The two others were to be put in place on another spacewalk on Friday.

Now Cassidy and crewmate Tom Marshburn aim to install all four remaining batteries on the fourth of five spacewalks planned during Endeavour's stay at the station.

"We'll get the rest on (Friday)," Cassidy told Japanese astronaut Aki Hoshide at NASA's Mission Control Center.

Said Hoshide: "Absolutely."

Endeavour is due to depart the station next Tuesday and land at Kennedy Space Center on July 31.

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