On Friday, November 15, the first of a series of spacewalks will begin repairs to the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS-02), an important instrument on the International Space Station (ISS) that sifts through particles in space, leading to new discoveries about physics and our universe — particularly dark matter.
Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency (ESA) and Drew Morgan of NASA will conduct the complicated repairs. Both Morgan and Parmitano have been training for years to work on this instrument and will make the four or five spacewalks needed to finish the repairs.
NASA TV will broadcast the spacewalk live beginning at 6:30 a.m. EST on November 15.
AMS-02 came to the ISS in 2011 on the space shuttle Endeavour. After it was attached to the outside of the ISS, operators planned was to run the experiment for only three years. But eight years later, the instrument is still operational — but is in dire need of repairs.
AMS-02 is designed to search for antimatter and dark matter, allowing physicists to learn more about these mysterious substances. Since its installation, the instrument has challenged current thinking about physics as scientists analyze the cosmic particles it processes.
The instrument’s cooling pumps, which are essential for AMS-02 to continue running, have been failing for a few years now. When the pumps started to malfunction, engineers at NASA knew they needed to come up with a plan to fix them.
After four years, the repair plan is finally ready.
“We’re all very excited to stop talking about it and start executing,” said Kenny Todd, the manager of International Space Station Operations Integration, at the press briefing on November 12.
Currently, the team is planning on four spacewalks to repair the pumps and upgrade AMS-02, but because of the complex nature of the tast, the last two have not been scheduled yet and a fifth excursion could be added.
During the first walk on Friday, Parmitano and Drew will be doing prep work for the upcoming excusrions, including adding handles on the outside of the ISS for stability when performing the walks and removing the debris shield that’s currently protecting the instrument.
The next walk will be on November 22, but the real work on repairing AMS-02 won’t begin until the third or fourth spacewalk.
One of the biggest challenges of repairing AMS-02 is that it wasn’t designed to be repaired. Because of the expected three-year life span of the instrument, the initial design wasn’t created with consideration for fitting spacesuit gloves into the instrument. Other devices, such as the Hubble Space Telescope, have been designed with the intention of astronauts fixing it from inside space suits.
To overcome a lot of these challenges, teams of engineers have been working to create tools and ways for the astronauts to work around the sharp corners of the instrument. They reached out to college programs as well, encouraging student engineers to design a tool that will help the astronauts cut zip ties inside AMS-02 and retrieve them safely in zero gravity.
Both Parmitano and Drew have been performing test repairs with the tools and NASA officials stated in the press briefing that they feel confident in the astronauts’ abilities to complete the task at hand.
The schedule for the spacewalks also brings challenges. Boeing will be performing orbital tests of their uncrewed capsule, Starliner, at the beginning of December. This could hit pause on the spacewalks as the crew turns their attention to the Starliner tests. Plus, on December 7, a SpaceX Cargo Dragon will be making a resupply run to the ISS, taking even more time away from the walks.