Solar panel on space station rips while opening
HOUSTON (Reuters) - A solar power panel ripped as it was being unfurled from a newly reinstalled girder on the International Space Station on Tuesday, forcing NASA to halt the operation and throwing expansion plans into doubt.
Part of the lengthy, wing-shaped panel looked torn and crumpled in television shots from space.
NASA had called the array deployment critical to providing electricity for European and Japanese laboratories scheduled for delivery starting in December, after a massive joint that rotates another solar panel malfunctioned.
Astronauts on the station stopped unfurling the panel when they spotted the damage, but said the glinting sun had prevented them from seeing it sooner.
"It looks like the damage appeared fairly suddenly," said Pamela Melroy, commander of the space shuttle Discovery, which is docked at the station.
NASA engineers at Mission Control in Houston told the astronauts to shoot photos of the damage for study on Earth and had them partially retract the panel to take tension off the tear.
There was no immediate word on what NASA's next move would be, but officials said on Monday if there were problems with deploying the array, spacewalking astronauts who had planned to take a look at the troubled rotating joint would instead work on the solar panel.
The mishap cast a cloud over what had been a successful day for the astronauts, who earlier installed on the station the 17.5-tonne truss in which the panel was stowed.
POWER SHORTAGE CONCERN
With spacewalkers Scott Parazynski and Douglas Wheelock helping guide it, Daniel Tani and Stephanie Wilson had used the station's robot arm to put the 35-foot (10-metre) girder in place at the end of the station. It had been sitting atop the station for seven years.
"Looks good, spaceman," one of the spacewalkers said as they performed the task.
Once the girder was attached, half of the solar array, which has two separate panels and is 240 feet long when fully extended, was unfurled without a hitch.
The problem occurred when the other half was being deployed. It added to power woes on the station after NASA shut down on Sunday one of two 10-foot (three-meter) rotating joints on the station that enable solar power arrays to track the sun and generate electricity.
The joint, installed in June, had been acting up for two months. Tani, on a Sunday spacewalk, found metal shavings inside.
The shavings indicated that metal moving parts are grinding, which prompted NASA on Monday to add a day to space shuttle Discovery's stay at the station so Parazynski and Wheelock could closely inspect the joint on Thursday and help determine what repair is needed.
NASA plans to deliver Europe's Columbus laboratory to the station on a December shuttle flight and Japan's Kibo lab starting in February.
Space station program manager Mike Suffredini said on Monday that if the solar panels unfurled as planned on Tuesday, the station would have sufficient power for Columbus, but it was not clear if Kibo could be supported.
Before the solar panel ripped, Parazynski took a look at the station's other rotating joint, where the girder was attached on Tuesday, and said it looked to be in good shape.
The shuttle brought with it the Italian-built Harmony module, which was attached on Friday to add the first new room on the station in six years. Harmony also will serve as berthing port for Columbus and Kibo.
NASA is trying to finish the space station, which is a project of 15 nations, by 2010 when the space shuttle fleet is scheduled for retirement.