Antennas for the Space Station’s infrared cameras were replaced with a cheap blimp-like device on Tuesday. NASA astronauts Jon Lunney and Rick Mastracchio swapped antennas for at least three of the system’s new antennas in the atrium of the Harmony module.
As part of a routine upgrading, the antennas are slowly replacing the old, boxy trays – originally crafted by Maxon as part of a commercial payload business. Maxon has been contracted by NASA to build and provide the retrofit technology and support for the space station, which consists of seven US modules.
The old antennas are now little more than a hole in the space station’s frame. Lunney, Mastracchio and fellow astronaut Oleg Kononenko now have something new in mind: a somewhat unusual hobby.
After some manual intervention, the trio pulled out what appeared to be a pair of rectangular screwdrivers. Then they pulled out the spade and pruning shears – obviously they were US citizens and legal in the Russian Federation. A few quick snaps showed patches of green leaves arranged on either side of a hat. “Let’s start working,” Mastracchio said.
And the team got to work.
The pair used the spade to turn the pruning shears and fasten them to the antenna box. This might be the first time the U.S. has done something like this in space, according to NASA, but that’s not saying much in terms of space flight history. Astronauts in the 1970s took out earbuds and rocks from the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum after returning from a mission to the moon.
Mastracchio began the effort by slicing out a piece of the old antenna, which he slid into the socket to free up the space station’s current primary round, low-energy radio antenna. Lunney, who’d originally noticed the spade growing inside the new box and used to use it for gardening chores on Earth, jabbed a screwdriver at the edge of the old antenna and sawed through it. In one motion, he got right to work on the new one.
“It’s a big deal when you’re the person doing it,” he said afterward.
The new box won’t have much electronics within its base – just a pair of switches that basically work like primitive NASA switches. It’s a stark contrast to the networked nature of the space station, with data from cameras and experiments stashed inside the space station and stored to communicate with the ground.
After removing the antenna from the box, the pair held on tight as they squeezed in along with the two remaining antennas. Mastracchio pointed out how much space was created by the gear, but he stopped short of holding up his hand and yelling, “Asteroids! Asteroids!”
The two new posts were likely designed to be more effective for astronauts than the old boxes at handling pressure pressure. New and updated boxes have had their share of unexpected issues in the past. In 2012, the Russian payload which was supposed to deliver a 15-foot robot boat to the space station suffered a vulnerability that led to a crash into the ground and caused serious damage to the docking port. The device had to be replaced and packed away during the dangerous months while the space station was in orbit.
Last August, when the ISS was just hours from docking with the Chinese Tianhe-2 cargo craft, the crew was forced to grab a nearby Russian-made module to complete the docking. The experiment was initiated with the new system’s completion of the interplanetary command signals.
By using the new boxes instead of the more expensive optics, NASA is able to deliver a service to a low-Earth orbit for $1.2 billion, compared to the $7.5 billion it would cost to retrofit the old boxes. The boxes are currently in preliminary stage of development; once completed, NASA will own the system and the gear that will service the solar array antennas.
NASA would not comment on a more detailed plan for new multi-use antennas or antennas used in space science missions.
The space station, operated by the European Space Agency, is currently 35,000 miles above Earth and has a crew of six on board, including two Russians and two Japanese. The station is scheduled to remain in orbit until at least 2024, when it will be replaced by an even larger structure. Until then, it will continue to send astronauts and cargo to orbit.