The International Space Station isn’t just called that because it’s good for PR. The ISS is truly an international station, supported by space agencies from around the world. Case in point? Today, a NASA astronaut and an ESA astronaut are working together to upgrade the station’s outdated power supply.
American Shane Kimbrough and French astronaut Thomas Pesquet will be braving a spacewalk both today and Sunday to handle the installation of a new series of solar panels on the station. Pesquet and Kimbrough have actually spacewalked together before: twice, back in 2017, they braved the vacuum of space on Expedition 50.
NASA will be live streaming the spacewalk today, as well as Sunday’s mission. Pesquet is taking the lead on the spacewalk, as denoted by the red markings on his spacesuit. The ESA astronaut has the designation “EV1” for the mission, while the American Kimbrough is “EV2.” Each spacewalk is expected to take around six and a half hours.
The spacewalk is necessary to equip the ISS with new solar panels. The older panels still work, but they’re getting close to the end of their operational lifespan. Importantly, the new panels won’t just be giving the station several more years before they need to be replaced. They’re also a major upgrade in terms of power draw, allowing the station to tap into more energy for science experiments.
As such, the spacewalk is mundane in a sense. It’s a routine mission to set up some new solar panels. In another sense, though, it’s terrifying. The astronauts are protected from the vacuum of space only by their suits, and the slightest mistake could result in them slipping off of the station and spiraling into deep space.
The astronauts aren’t just hanging on to the side of the station, however. They’re equipped with jetpacks—yes, actual jetpacks—that will allow them to boost back to the station if they somehow slip off of it. There are also two astronauts performing a support role within the station. Mark Vande and Megan McArthur, both of NASA, are operating a robotic arm that will help Kimbrough and Pesquet.
Rather than having to physically maneuver themselves into their worksites, they’ll be moved into place by the robotic arm team. This is significantly safer than if they tried to use their jetpacks and navigate around the station, as their packs require significant fuel to power.
The two will likely be greeted by stunning vistas of our big blue planet as they go about their work. It really puts things in perspective to see the Earth below you as you hang by a thread in outer space.