China’s first female spacewalker helps outfit space station robotic arm

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One of the two spacewalker on Sunday’s excursion is seen outside China’s space station, with a part of the lab’s robotic arm in the background. Credit: CMSA

Astronauts Zhai Zhigang and Wang Yaping, the first Chinese woman to perform a spacewalk, stepped outside China’s space station Sunday for an excursion lasting more than six hours to ready the orbiting lab’s robotic arm for operations.

The astronauts are more than three weeks into a planned six-month expedition on the Chinese space station. The Shenzhou 13 mission will break the record for the longest Chinese human spaceflight, which was set at three months on the Shenzhou 12 mission that ended in September.

Zhai and Wang put on their Chinese-made Feitian spacesuits for Sunday’s spacewalk and depressurized the airlock on the space station’s Tianhe core module. China’s Manned Space Agency said the spacewalk officially began at 5:51 a.m. EST (1051 GMT), when Zhai opened the airlock hatch.

By 7:28 a.m. EST (1228 GMT), both spacewalkers had exited the airlock and started their work.

The spacewalk plan included tasks to install an adapter linking the space station’s two robotic arms, giving the appendage a longer reach for future work to capture modules and spacecraft and move them around different parts of the growing complex.

The astronauts also installed a suspension device on the robotic arm and tested “typical movements outside the cabin,” the China Manned Space Agency said in a statement. The agency said Zhai and Wang also verified their ability to work with the robotic and the safety of support equipment needed for spacewalks.

Ye Guangfu, the other crew member on the Shenzhou 13 mission, monitored and assisted the spacewalkers from inside the space station.

With the long and short segments connected, the arm has a length of more than 47 feet (14.5 meters), according to China’s state-run Xinhua news agency. The connection will allow the robot arm to connect on one end with a fixture on the Tianhe core module, and on the other end with the Wentian laboratory module scheduled for launch next year.

The combined arm will have enough reach to cover all three main modules of the space station to carry out inspections and other work, such as transferring scientific instruments, according to Gao Sheng, an engineer in charge of the mechanical arm for the China Academy of Space Technology, in a story published by Xinhua.

The third main module for China’s space station is Mengtian. The Wentian and Mengtian modules will launch next year on heavy-lift Long March 5 rockets, joining the Tianhe core module, which blasted off on a Long March in April.

The Shenzhou 13 mission is the second crew flight to visit the Chinese space station. The Shenzhou 12 mission launched in June and returned to Earth in September, and astronauts on that flight were the first to conduct a spacewalk outside China’s new orbiting outpost.

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