Astronauts Toss Junk Overboard from ISS

At 6:24 am EDT this morning, two International Space Station crew members — Astronaut Clay Anderson and cosmonaut and station commander Fyodor Yurchikhin — stepped from the Quest Airlock to take out the trash.

Specifically, they had to get rid of a refrigerator-size ammonia reservoir and a supporting brace.

The Houston Chronicle explains:

After months of deliberation, NASA decided to throw away the coolant tank and a 218-pound brace. Normally, the no-longer-needed pieces of hardware would have been returned to Earth aboard a space shuttle.

However, NASA is planning only 12 to 14 more assembly and supply missions to the 210-mile-high orbital outpost before it retires the shuttle fleet in 2010. There won’t be enough room to bring the ammonia tank and the brace back, space agency officials said earlier this month.

The brace was occupying external stowage space on the station that will be needed to hold a new gyroscope that is awaiting launch aboard the shuttle Endeavour early next month.

But wait — we’ve written before about the dangers that space junk poses to satellites and the ISS. So how will the ISS avoid smacking into a 1,400 pound ammonia coolant tank? 

Late today, NASA plans to raise the altitude of the space station by several miles to lower the risk of a catastrophic collision with the space station. The two objects will be tracked by military radar so the operators of other spacecraft can be notified of a potential collision.

Even in a zero-G environment, of course, trash can be unwieldy. That’s why Cosmonaut Oleg Kotov stayed in the U.S. laboratory Destiny to operate the Canadarm2 and help the two spacewalkers with the morning chores:

Canadarm 2 is a larger and more sophisticated version of the robotic arm built for the space shuttle. Fully extended, the arm is nearly 18 metres long, three metres longer than the shuttle’s arm, and can handle loads up to 116 tonnes.

The new arm also has a hand on either end so one can latch onto the space station while the other end reaches out and picks up things that it needs. Then it can let go and grab on somewhere else.

The real talent in the new design is in its ability to move around where the astronauts most need the robot arm. The Canadarm 2 can crawl along the body of the space station on its two hands, end over end like an inchworm. The outside of the station has a number of sockets where the arm can plug in. As well, the arm can be fixed to a work platform that moves on rails from one end of the station to the other.

For all that sophistication, however, we are sad to report that the Canadarm2 still cannot open a can of beer. (See video.)

Video of this morning’s spacewalk can be seen here. Also check out this news report on astronaut Clay Anderson, who brought a football with him to the ISS in honor of his Nebraska roots.