Solar panel problem on ISS

After several stops and starts, the crew successfully retracted the wing enough to provide clearance so new arrays installed on the station in September can track the sun for power.

Space station crew member Suni Williams sent commands for the 37-metre-long panel to begin folding like a Venetian blind into a flat box at the base of the array. Problems began as the panel was less than 25 per cent retracted.

Television images relayed from space showed the golden panel slightly buckled at the bottom of the array. The manoeuvre was aborted.

“It looks like it’s a big concern,” station commander Michael Lopez-Alegria radioed to Mission Control.

Flight directors decided to re-extend the panel, which has been spread out in the harsh space environment for six years – about twice as long as planned.

NASA wanted to rewire the station in 2003, but the destruction of space shuttle Columbia halted all shuttle flights.

Assembly resumed in September, with a new deadline to complete the outpost before the shuttle fleet is retired in 2010. NASA needs at least another 13 missions to finish the complex.

The Discovery crew, which arrived at the station on Monday for a weeklong stay, needs to rewire the station’s electrical system to tap power produced by the new solar panels.

The rewiring will pave the way for laboratories built by Europe and Japan to be attached to the space station beginning next year.

By alternatively extending and retracting the panel, Williams was able to smooth out misalignments in the wing, clearing enough space for the new arrays to rotate and bolstering hopes the entire wing could be folded up as planned.

The panel is one of two that have been operating since 2000 from a temporary location on top of the station. The second array is scheduled to be folded up next year.

Engineers suspected the panel might not retract as planned, having been subjected to the extreme heat and cold of space for years.

Astronauts Robert Curbeam and Christer Fuglesang completed the first of three planned spacewalks on Tuesday, successfully installing a new metal piece to the station’s backbone.

Solar flare danger

As the spacewalk was wrapping up, NASA got word of a powerful solar flare that discharged higher levels of X-ray radiation and charged particles toward Earth.

Flight controllers told the commanders of the shuttle and the station to have their crews sleep in protected parts of their ships.

The radioactive environment is not expected to impact plans for spacewalks on Thursday and Saturday, though NASA will continue to monitor the space weather, Johnson Space Centre spokesman Bill Jeffs said.

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