ISS spacewalk sets record but almost ends in disaster

A space walk lasting over eight hours broke International Space Station records, but a technical glitch could have made the whole thing a waste of time. Russian cosmonauts spent eight hours and 13 minutes outside of the orbiting research platform on Friday, installing an upgrade to a key antenna with which the ISS communicates with Mission Control in Russia.

The space walk was intended, originally, to last six and a half hours. In the end, however, it overran that significantly, and the two cosmonauts – Commander Alexander Misurkin and Anton Shkaplerov – broke the previous Russian record. That had been an eight hours and seven minute walk, back in 2013.

Any excitement at that was scuppered, however, when the antenna failed to return to its proper position. The high-gain dish, measuring approximately four feet in diameter, had been retracted on its boom arm for the upgrade, which involved fitting new a electronics and telemetry box. However, when it was set to extend once more into its operating position, it instead caught on the mothballed European Automated Transfer Vehicle supply ship guides, still on the Russian side of the ISS.

Attempts were made to remotely rotate the antenna to extract it, and the two cosmonauts even pushed it to try to get it to the correct place. While it did clear the obstacle, it then rotated further than had been intended. The obsolete part was jettisoned, and will burn up in the Earth's atmosphere.

Despite the rotation issue, "the antenna system appears to be working normally," NASA says. Russia will be analyzing whether that's indeed the case. The new hardware adds the ability to communicate using wideband, relayed through Russia's Luch satellite network. That had been upgraded with three new satellites in launches carried out between 2011 and 2014, but required matching hardware on the Lira antenna on the ISS.

An intended second space walk, which had been planned for this coming week by NASA astronauts on the American side of the station, has been shelved. Instead, it'll be carried out on February 15, to detach a faulty robotic gripper from one of the external tools.

Meanwhile, although the Russian space walk record may have been broken, the overall record still stands. That's held by NASA astronauts, who spent almost nine hours outside of the ISS back in 2001. As of this past week, there have been 207 space walks at the space station.