Spacewalking astronauts try to fix battery problem, run cables

By William Harwood

/ CBS News

CBSN

Two astronauts floated outside the International Space Station Monday for NASA's third spacewalk in less than three weeks. This time the mission was to help replace a faulty solar array battery that was installed during the first excursion, to route ethernet cabling to extend wireless connectivity and to install backup power lines for the lab's robot arm.

Floating in the Quest airlock, NASA flight engineer Anne McClain, call sign EV-1, and Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques, EV-2, switched their spacesuits to battery power at 7:31 a.m. EDT to officially kick off the 216th spacewalk since assembly began in 1998.

A recent anti-satellite test by India that successfully destroyed a low-altitude target satellite created a cloud of debris in low-Earth orbit. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine initially called the incident "a terrible, terrible thing," but space station managers concluded it was safe to proceed with the spacewalk.

Spacewalking astronauts are tackling battery and cable work outside the International Space Station. NASA

Saint-Jacques originally expected to conduct Monday's spacewalk with NASA astronaut Nick Hague. Hague and McClain carried out the first of the three spacewalks March 22 while McClain and Christina Koch planned to carry out the second on March 29, becoming the first all-female spacewalk team in space history.

But after the first excursion, McClain decided she was more comfortable wearing a medium-size suit, the same one Koch needed. Because it would take nearly a full crew day to re-size a spare suit to fit McClain, Hague took her place on the second spacewalk and McClain replaced him for the third outing.

As it turned out, the crew swaps were just one of the changes the crew had to deal with.

During the March 22 spacewalk, McClain and Hague followed up work with the station's robot arm to replace six older nickel-hydrogen batteries in the lab's solar power system with three more efficient lithium-ion batteries. The astronauts installed "adapter plates" permitting a single li-ion battery to take the place of two of the older nickel-hydrogen power packs.

During the second spacewalk March 29, Hague and Koch helped with the installation of another three li-ion batteries. But during testing after the first EVA, engineers ran into problems with one of the initially installed li-ion batteries and an electronics component called a battery charge-discharge unit, or BCDU.

After attempts to correct the problems failed, NASA managers opted to remove the faulty battery and replace it with two of the recently removed nickel-hydrogen batteries. They also decided to replace the BCDU with a spare.

Using the station's robot arm, flight controllers removed the suspect battery and the BCDU and then re-installed one of the recently removed nickel-hydrogen batteries. They also robotically replaced the failed BCDU.

McClain tightened up the bolts holding the battery charge-discharge unit in place before she and Saint-Jacques worked to remove an adapter plate installed during the first spacewalk to make room for the installation of a second nickel-hydrogen battery.

040819-eva-crew.jpg
Astronaut Anne McClain, left, and Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques pose with the spacesuits they donned Monday for work outside the International Space Station to help correct a solar power system battery problem and to install power and ethernet cables. NASA

After the spacewalk, flight controllers will use the robot arm to re-install the second nickel-hydrogen battery, restoring power channel 4A to its normal output.

Kenny Todd, space station operations and integration manager, said the faulty lithium-ion battery will be discarded while the BCDU will be returned to Earth for inspections to find out what went wrong. A new lithium-ion battery will be flown up to the station on a future cargo flight and eventually installed in place of the two older batteries.

As for using a mix of old and new batteries in power channel 4A, "we anticipate we can run that configuration for quite some time and get us back to our nominal power capability on channel 4A," he said. "So we feel really good about where we're going to end up on the back side of these EVAs and robotics activities."

With the adapter plate move out of the way, McClain and Saint-Jacques planned to press ahead with work to connect ethernet cabling at the forward end of the station's Destiny laboratory module that will extend wireless connectivity for science instruments mounted outside the station.

A cable run out to the right side of the station's solar power truss was deferred to make time for the adapter plate relocation.

The final major task on the crew's agenda Monday was to run power lines from the central Unity module to the central S0 segment of the power truss to provide a backup power source for the lab's robot arm.

While the arm already has redundant power sources, the cables installed by McClain and Saint-Jacques will allow the arm to continue operating even if one of those other power supplies fails.

First published on April 8, 2019 / 8:20 AM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

William Harwood

Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He covered 129 space shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia."

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