Power aboard the battered Mir space station was back to nearly full force today after two Russian cosmonauts installed a new solar panel in a grueling six-hour spacewalk.
The repair mission went down to the wire as the cosmonauts mounted the panel on the outside of the Kvant module, but had difficulty unfolding it as the scheduled end of their spacewalk approached.Vladimir Solovyov, head of mission control, called the operation a success, thanking the Russian-American crew for their efforts to get Mir shipshape after a string of mishaps left the station limping through space with limited power for months.
"We congratulate you and thank you very, very much. Thanks a lot, you have done a very good job," a happy Solovyov said.
The crew quickly connected the new panel and reported its power output had doubled, Solovyov said.
"Now we have enough power to cover the needs of all equipment in full," he told journalists.
But there were some anxious moments at the end of today's mission.
American astronaut David Wolf, working from inside the Mir, pressed the buttons to make the panel unfold, but it opened only halfway. It took several more tries, and some tugging from the cosmonauts, before the panel opened fully.
The Russian duo of Anatoly Solovyov and Pavel Vinogradov then returned safely to the Mir, space officials said. The two were very tired and lost up to 3 pounds each during the mission, they said.
The Mir's power supply is now close to its original level. Eight of 10 solar panels are working normally. The ninth is operating, but at less than full capacity, and one was damaged beyond repair in a June crash with a cargo ship.
The accident knocked out four solar panels and cut the Mir's power supply almost by half. The crew has been working steadily to increase energy levels ever since.
Solovyov, the world's most experienced spacewalker, and Vinogradov removed an old solar panel on Monday, and Thursday's effort was the second stage of the operation.
"It's clear that (Solovyov) has done this kind of work before," said Wolf, who filmed the cosmonauts from inside the Mir.
As they headed out into space Thursday, the cosmonauts said they found a white residue, like powder or salt, on the edge of the hatch.
Ground controllers were trying to figure out the nature of the mystery substance.