New panels for space station

September 15, 2006|By Robyn Shelton | Robyn Shelton,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ORLANDO, Fla. -- NASA prepared the International Space Station for expansion yesterday by unfurling a new set of electricity-producing solar arrays.

The giant panels, delivered by the shuttle Atlantis, eventually will double the station's power production and get it ready for two more modules scheduled for launch by the end of 2008.

After a delay caused by a software problem, the gold and black solar panels were unfolded accordion-like, a painstaking job that took four hours.

Locked into place, the arrays span 240 feet from tip to tip.

"Big day for space station. Congratulations," astronaut Pam Melroy radioed the shuttle crew from Mission Control in Houston.

"Thanks, the team obviously did a great job," shuttle commander Brent Jett replied. "We're very happy to get the array out today."

NASA managers said they were thrilled with the deployment, which marks the start of a period of intense construction at the space station. Additional European and Japanese laboratory modules are to be installed in the next two years. The station had been in a holding pattern since the shuttle Columbia accident in 2003.

"We're ecstatic today," said Mike Suffredini, the space station program manager. "The vehicle has performed in an outstanding way, the systems that make up the [solar arrays] have all performed as advertised, and we're well on our way to returning to assembly."

The arrays are producing power to charge their batteries but not for the station itself. Additional work must be done the next shuttle mission - tentatively scheduled for December - before they are ready to generate electricity for the space station.

In addition, two more identical sets of solar panels are planned for launch by the end of 2008. When fully outfitted, NASA says, the station will generate enough electricity to power 25 un-air-conditioned homes on Earth.

Astronauts Joe Tanner and Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper were scheduled to begin the mission's third spacewalk shortly after 5 a.m. today. They were to do final work on the new arrays and carry out other tasks.

NASA managers say Atlantis' mission has been relatively trouble-free. After being launched from Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 9, the shuttle and its crew arrived at the space station Monday. During two space walks, astronauts have made electrical and other connections for the solar arrays.

Mission managers have praised the work of the shuttle and station crews.

"You just can't imagine a flight being better than this one has been," Suffredini said.

Atlantis is scheduled to detach from the station Sunday and return to Florida early Wednesday.

Robyn Shelton writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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