Space news: Astronauts anchor lab to space station, and Mars lander gets more playtime before real work

Monday, June 2nd 2008, 2:43 pm
By: News 9

Astronauts anchor lab to space station


AP Aerospace Writer

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) -- A team of astronauts working inside and out anchored a giant billion-dollar Japanese lab to the international space station on Tuesday, making it the biggest room there.

The long-awaited moment of contact came as two of the crew were winding up a spacewalk.

Spacewalkers Michael Fossum and Ronald Garan Jr. took care of all the preliminaries, removing covers and disconnecting cables on the bus-size lab, named Kibo, Japanese for hope. They left it to their colleagues inside to do the heavy lifting, by way of the space station's robot arm.

The honor of operating the arm for the installation fell to Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, who accompanied Kibo to orbit aboard space shuttle Discovery.

Kibo -- a behemoth stretching 37 feet and weighing more than 32,000 pounds -- became the largest lab at the space station by nine feet.

It's also more sophisticated. Kibo sports a hatch to the outside and a robot arm for sliding out science experiments. A smaller arm will arrive next spring, along with an outdoor porch for holding the experiment packages.

The first part of Kibo -- essentially a storage shed -- was delivered by the last shuttle crew in March. The astronauts aboard the linked shuttle and station will attach the shed to the lab on Friday.

Japanese Space Agency officials estimate more than $2 billion went into all the pieces, which had to be split up to fit into three shuttle missions. The project has been in the works for more than 20 years.

The lab work was just part of Tuesday's spacewalk, the first of three planned for Discovery's nine-day space station visit. Coincidentally, it fell on the 43rd anniversary of America's first spacewalk, by Gemini 4's Edward White.

White spent 21 minutes outside his capsule on June 3, 1965. Fossum and Garan were looking at 6 1/2 hours outdoors.

The spacewalkers got off to a late start because of a bad cable in Fossum's communications cap, but soon made up for lost time, helping to remove a 50-foot shuttle inspection boom from the space station. The laser-tipped pole was left there by the last shuttle crew, for use by Discovery's astronauts to survey the shuttle's thermal skin before returning to Earth.

Kibo took up so much of Discovery's payload bay that there wasn't room for the boom.

Fossum also took a stab at cleaning a solar wing rotating joint that is clogged with metal shavings, while Garan worked to put in a new bearing. The joint has been used only sparingly since last fall, hampering energy production.

NASA still does not know where the grit came from or how best to deal with the problem.

Given the messy joint, Mission Control instructed the astronauts inside to wear surgical masks and goggles when helping the spacewalkers to get out of their suits. "I feel like a junk salesman," Fossum said, chuckling.

It was the fourth spacewalk for Fossum, a colonel in the Air Force Reserves who is making his second shuttle flight, and the first for Garan, an Air Force pilot.

As the spacewalk got under way, Fossum offered this advice: "Enjoy the view, but don't look down."

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


Mars lander gets more playtime before real work


AP Science Writer

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- NASA's Phoenix lander got extra playtime in the Martian dirt on Tuesday, doing another practice dig as scientists tried to perfect the technique ahead of the actual excavation.

"The team felt they weren't really comfortable yet with the digging and dumping process," said chief scientist Peter Smith of the University of Arizona, Tucson. "They haven't really mastered it."

The extra practice means the earliest that Phoenix would flex its 8-foot robotic arm to claw below the arctic plains for scientific study would be Wednesday.

Smith compared Phoenix's antics to a child playing on the beach with a sand pail and shovel.

"But we're doing it blind from 170 million miles away," he said.

Phoenix landed near the Martian north pole on May 25 on a three-month mission to study whether the environment could be habitable for primitive life forms. Photographs revealed its three legs touched down on what appeared to be splotches of ice that were uncovered when its firing thrusters blew away loose soil.

Phoenix got its first touch of Mars on Sunday when it scooped up and then dumped a handful of soil in a region that scientists dubbed the "Knave of Hearts." The scoop contained intriguing white specks that scientists think could be surface ice or salt.

For the second practice "dig and dump," engineers told the robot to go slightly deeper in the same region and use the camera on its arm to take photos this time.

When Phoenix starts its scientific work, it will deliver scoopfuls of dirt to several onboard instruments including a tiny oven. The oven will bake the sample and analyze the vapors for traces of organic compounds that are the chemical building blocks of life.

New photos sent back by Phoenix showed one of the spring-loaded doors on the oven failed to open all the way. Scientists hope the midday temperatures will make the door less sticky, but it can still be used with a partially open oven door, Smith said.

The $420 million mission is led by the University of Arizona and managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)