Space station gets a new set of solar wings

Sewing kit, normally reserved for spacesuits, may be used to repair thermal blanket

WASHINGTON/HOUSTON: The International Space Station on Tuesday spread its new solar wings and got a boost of power generation capacity after astronauts of the space shuttle Atlantis wired them up during a space walk.

Television pictures broadcast by NASA showed the vast panels unfurling, after they were put in place by the space station's robotic arm and connected by the two space walkers on Monday.

The accordion-like installations, brought from Earth in the hold of Atlantis, then finished their slow, delicate spreading. They will boost the power-generating capacity of the ISS so it can host new modules from Europe and Japan.

With the 240-foot, 16-tonne section holding the solar arrays in operation after the space walkers activated its electrical connections, the visiting astronauts were looking ahead for their next foray outside the ISS.

NASA said on Monday it would add two days to Atlantis's mission to allow astronauts to repair a thermal blanket on the vessel's exterior, which was slightly damaged by the extreme air pressure of blasting through Earth's atmosphere.

It raised fears that graphite structures underneath the blanket would be damaged when the shuttle powers back to Earth.

John Shannon, head of the NASA mission management team, said the repair would be simple and quick.

Concerns played down

NASA has played down concerns over the tear to the thermal blanket since it was noticed after Friday's take-off. Mr. Shannon earlier said the tear was in a spot not exposed to the highest heat as the shuttle breaks through Earth's atmosphere.

Atlantis astronauts may use a sewing kit normally reserved for spacesuits to repair the peeled-back thermal blanket, NASA managers said.

Engineers have looked at using duct tape or other adhesives to secure the blanket, but are leaning toward a method which would use stainless steel wire as thread and an instrument with a rounded end resembling a small darning needle.

``Duct tape doesn't work in the vacuum of space,'' said Mr. Shannon, the mission management team's chairman, on Tuesday.

NASA engineers planned to try out the different method in heat and wind tunnel tests.

The thermal blankets are used to protect the shuttle from searing heat during re-entry. Engineers do not think the intense heat could burn through the graphite structure underneath it and jeopardize the spacecraft.

But it could damage the shuttle, requiring repairs after landing that could delay the three additional flights to the space station NASA has scheduled for the remainder of the year. Agencies

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