Peake and Nasa astronaut Tim Kopra will have to replace a ‘solar shunt’, reroute cables, ready the station for commercial crew vehicles, and reinstall a vent from a narrow crevice along the station’s hull. Photograph: Tim Peake/AFP/Getty
British astronaut Tim Peake’s first spacewalk will take him to the far end of the International Space Station on Friday, as he and another astronaut repair a power unit before the sun makes it too dangerous to work on the solar panels.
The spacewalk, scheduled for 12.55pm GMT (7.55am EST) and expected to last more than six hours, is the first for a British astronaut with the European Space Agency.
At a briefing on Tuesday afternoon, Nasa officials described the difficulties Peake and Nasa astronaut Tim Kopra – who will together perform the “extra-vehicular activity” (EVA) – will face when they leave the space station to replace a failed solar shunt unit, a device that regulates electricity from one pair of the station’s 16 huge solar panels.
Kopra and Peake must replace an electrical box that failed in November, and their task seems simple enough: remove a single bolt and replace the box and bolt. But they will have to traverse the space station wearing unwieldy and fragile space suits – “sort of your own independent spaceship to protect you from the environment”, in the words of Paul Dum, Nasa’s lead spacewalk officer.
“Imagine having thick winter gloves on and trying to do anything that takes fine dexterity,” Dum said, adding that the two would have to do some tasks one-handed. They will also have to carry tools, cables and the spare solar shunt – itself a “bulky, massive thing”, he said – as they clamber around the outside of the station.
Station commander Scott Kelly, who himself stepped out into space in late December, will assist on this mission by helping Peake and Kopra in and out of their suits.
Dum also detailed how carefully the astronauts will have to move. Peake and Kopra will have to manage footstraps and tethers, toolboxes and hull plating, all while dangling umbilically from the station 250 miles above the Earth – a vehicle that is itself moving more than 15,000 mph.
Spacewalks have become fairly routine, with seven in 2015 and nearly 200 since 1998. But they can go terrifyingly wrong, as when Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano nearly drowned in his helmet in 2013, or when American Rick Mastracchio discovered a tear in his glove in 2007.
The astronauts will also have to work with some haste, said Kenny Todd, Nasa’s mission operations lead for the space station. The spacewalk is timed to coincide with the space station being in eclipse, he said, so that the sun’s light will not strike its 16 solar panels and start generating energy.
That energy could damage systems, and touching an active shunt “increases that risk of arcing and sparking”, Dum said. He said the crew had a number of contingency plans should something go wrong – and demonstrated a toothbrush-like tool for clearing debris from the shunt, if necessary.
Replacing the shunt will not be the end of Peake and Kopra’s chores. They will also have to reroute cables, ready the station for commercial crew vehicles, and reinstall a vent from a narrow crevice along the station’s hull.
Astronauts have had trouble with solar shunts before, including a unit that failed in 2012, was repaired, and then failed again. There are no other spares on board the vessel, the officials said, but the crew would not be endangered with only seven active units.
“If one of those plants needs to be shut down it doesn’t turn off that light,” flight director Royce Renfrew said. “But it would be much better if we could get back to our normal configuration.”
Todd agreed, hinting at how precarious life in space is even with contingency plans in place. “From a station perspective we could live in this state for quite a while,” he said, but “if we were to lose an addition we’d probably find ourselves a little more strapped”.
Although Peake is the first Briton to walk into space in an ESA uniform, he is not the first British astronaut to leave the space station or shuttle. In 1995 former Nasa astronaut Michael Foale – a dual US-UK citizen – became the first UK-born person to walk into the void. And between 2002 and 2010, Sussex-born Piers Sellers spent more than 41 hours in space over six walks, though only after becoming a naturalized US citizen to fly for Nasa.
The first British astronaut was Helen Sharman, who flew on a privately funded mission to the Russian space Mir in 1991, only a few months before the Soviet Union collapsed.
On Friday, Jan. 15, Expedition 46 flight engineers Tim Kopra of NASA and Tim Peake of ESA will venture outside the space station’s Quest airlock to replace a failed voltage regulator that compromised one of the station’s eight power channels last November. The spacewalk is scheduled to begin at 7:55 a.m. EST and will be the third in Kopra’s career and the first for Peake, and the 192nd for maintenance of the space station. It will be the 35th spacewalk using the U.S. Quest airlock. Additional tasks include deploying cables for the future installation of an International Docking Adapter that will accommodate U.S. commercial crew vehicles, and retrieving a broken light from a truss camera.
Update: 15.01.2016 / 12.30 MEZ
Tim Peake prepares for historic space walk: Everything you need to know about British astronaut's pioneering mission
It's one small step for an Englishman and one giant leap for Great Britain.
Tim Peake is preparing to perform his first spacewalk today, making him one of just a handful of British-born people to venture into the void.
Today, the astro-Brit and his colleague Tim Kopra will take part in a mission called the 35th NASA Extra-Vehicular Activity (EVA).
Major Tim will step outside the International Space Station (ISS) at about 12.55 GMT and spend six hours floating in a most peculiar way.
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