The International Space Station (ISS) crossed a significant milestone in its evolution as a full-fledged experimental platform in Space when the crew of space shuttle Discovery successfully bolted on and unfurled the last set of solar panels designed to be attached to the massive module.
A spacewalk by astronauts Steve Swanson and Richard Arnold saw them manoeuvre and bolt the solar panels into place outside the space station. These panels then received commands from inside the Discovery, which saw them open up to receive the Sun's energy providing rays.
The ISS's new solar arrays are 230 feet long at full length and weigh nearly 5,000 pounds on Earth. They will gather energy through 32,800 solar cells and transfer that power through a truss into the space station's batteries.
Fully unfurled, the arrays are expected to add to the ISS's energy supply from today.
The operation was marked by a small glitch, however, as the unfurling process was held up with one of the 30 solar panels stuck to another panel. The astronauts decided to wait about 30 minutes to allow the Sun's rays to warm the panels and allow them to be pulled apart.
The manoeuvre now makes the ISS about 81% complete, a NASA spokesperson said.
The spokesperson also added said that the solar arrays are capable of producing enough energy to power forty two 2,800-square-feet homes. This addition in capacity will allow twice the amount of existing power to be made available for science experiments onboard the station.
The capacity addition will also allow the space station to support a crew of six to eight astronauts as compared to the current three. NASA said the number of the crew will be increased to six later this year.
"This was a vital piece of hardware we installed today," the spokesperson said, adding, "It was vital for this mission."