June 9, 2008

Space Station Ready to Flex Japanese Robotic Arm

story was updated at 12:37 p.m. EDT.

HOUSTON -- Astronauts
aboard the International Space Station (ISS) successfully flexed and folded a
fledgling robotic arm Monday to check the external reach of the outpost's new Japanese lab.

shuttle astronauts extended the six-jointed arm of Japan's newly installed billion-dollar
Kibo laboratory
out to its full 33-foot (10-meter) length before tucking it
away for future tests.

"It was
such a pretty view," Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide told Japan's mission controllers
at the Tsukuba Space Center today after reaching out with Kibo's robotic limb.

Hoshide and
NASA spaceflyer Karen Nyberg inched the arm through
its first twitches
on Saturday, when they moved it slightly to clear space
so two spacewalkers could remove insulation covers and unlock a window at the
end of Japan's 37-foot (11-meter) Kibo lab. But their test today with station
astronaut Gregory Chamitoff marked the first large deployment of the new
robotic arm.

"It'll be
quite dramatic," said Annette Hasbrook, lead station flight director for
Discovery's flight, in a Sunday briefing here at NASA's Johnson Space Center.
"It'll practically extend all the way out, and then move down and fold in on

Kibo's main
robotic arm weighs about 1,719 pounds (780 kg) and can haul objects as massive
as 15,432 pounds (7,000 kg). It launched with its Kibo
parent module
aboard the shuttle Discovery on May 31. The shuttle's
seven-astronaut crew, commanded by veteran astronaut Mark Kelly, is due to
return to Earth Saturday after wrapping up the new lab's installation aboard
the station.

"It's not
going to move around, not like the station arm," said Hoshide, representing the
Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in a NASA interview before flight.
"It's going to sit there."

The space
station's 57-foot (17-meter) Canadarm2 robotic arm can crawl from one spot to
another outside the orbiting lab's hull like an inchworm.

robotic arm is built solely for manipulating experiments on the laboratory's
porch-like platform slated to be launched aboard a NASA shuttle next year,
Hoshide said. A smaller Japanese robotic arm, to be used for finer actions, is
also planned for launch later.

flex and fold exercises will set the stage for five more shakedown tests in the
coming months by the space station's three-man Expedition 17 crew. The final
test is expected to end in the Japanese robotic limb's first grapple onto an
attachment point outside the station.

"We'll get
the opportunity to see that arm to do its thing several times over the summer,"
said space station flight director Emily Nelson early Monday.

In addition
to the robotic arm tests, all 10 astronauts aboard the docked station and
shuttle are expected to discuss their mission with reporters on Earth later
this afternoon.

also expected to reopen the Kibo's storage room, a squat 14-foot (4.4-meter)
room that was moved
to laboratory's rooftop
berth on Friday. The attic-like storage space has
no defined use, and can serve as an extra closet for space-starved astronauts
aboard the station.

"You can
imagine how full your house gets as you go through life, but you can never have
a garage sale or very infrequently take things away," Nelson said. "This will
provide some much needed storage space."

broadcasting the planned launch of Discovery's STS-124 mission live on NASA TV
on Saturday. Click here for
SPACE.com's shuttle mission updates and NASA TV feed.