NASA gives astronauts a Sunday breather before third spacewalk

After installing last section of the space station's backbone, shuttle crew readies for next jobs

The crew aboard the space shuttle Discovery got some downtime this morning to prepare for their third spacewalk, which is set for tomorrow.

The NASA astronauts are getting some rest after a busy week that included docking the Discovery with the International Space Station last Tuesday and using robotic arms later in the week to install the S6 truss, which is the last piece of the backbone of the space station.

NASA said on Friday that after installing the truss and a 5,000-lb. set of solar arrays attached to it, work on the space station now is 81% complete.

"This was a vital piece of hardware we installed [Friday]," said Debbie Nguyen, a spokeswoman for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, in a previous interview. "It was vital for this mission."

The solar arrays are designed to gather energy through 32,800 solar cells and then transfer that power through the truss to the space station's batteries. Nguyen told Computerworld that the solar arrays will produce enough energy to power 42 2,800-square-foot homes. That will double the amount of power -- from 15 kilowatts to 30 kilowatts -- that goes to science experiments onboard the station.

It also means that the space station can now support a crew of six to eight astronauts. Right now, there is a crew of three aboard the station, but that number is expected to be bumped up to six this May because of the extra energy capacity.

The shuttle crew's current 14-day mission is slated to include four spacewalks.

The crew also is slated to replace a failed unit that is designed to convert urine to potable water. The shuttle also is set to return to Earth with an astronaut who has just spent more than three months onboard the space station.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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