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Watch live: Russian cosmonauts begin spacewalk to continue outfitting European robot arm

Russian cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev and Denis Matveev suited up and headed outside the International Space Station Wednesday for a spacewalk to continue outfitting the European Space Agency’s robotic arm delivered to the complex last year.

Artemyev and Matveev, wearing Russian Orlan spacesuits, opened the hatch of the the Poisk airlock module at 9:53 a.m. EDT (1353 GMT) Wednesday to begin a planned six-and-a-half hour spacewalk.

The primary focus of the spacewalk will be to continue readying the European Robotic Arm for regular operations. The 37-foot-long (11.3-meter) arm launched last July on Russia’s Nauka multipurpose laboratory module, and joins similar Canadian and Japanese arms outside the space station.

The Canadian and Japanese robotic arms are positioned outside the U.S.-led segment of the space station, while the Russian segment is accessible to the European arm. Like the Canadian robotic arm, the European arm has the ability to “inchworm” between grapple fixtures, or base points, at multiple locations on the space station.

Artemyev and Matveev will install cameras on the European Robotic Arm, relocate the arm’s external control panel, and remove launch restraints near the two end effectors, or “hands” of the arm. The cosmonauts will also test a rigidizing mechanism on the arm that will be used to grasp payloads for movement outside the station, according to NASA.

The excursion marks the 252nd spacewalk for assembly, maintenance, and upgrades of the International Space Station, and the seventh outside the ISS this year. It is the fourth spacewalk primarily dedicated to preparing the European Robotic Arm for operations.

Full-scale development of the European Robotic Arm began in 1996, and the arm was in storage more than a decade to wait for Russia’s Nauka lab module to be ready for launch. The European arm, primarily built in the Netherlands, was originally planned for launch on a NASA space shuttle.

“ERA is a bit different than the other manipulators that already on the station,” said Philippe Schoonejansm, the European Space Agency’s ERA project manager, last year. “It can be fully preprogrammed in advance, which is helpful. It can be operated from external control panel, which the others do not have. So even when you’re doing a spacewalk, you can control ERA by just seeing and operating this control panel. But also it can operated from inside using only a laptop, so it doesn’t need any joysticks.”

A view of the European Robotic Arm during an extension test outside the International Space Staton earlier this year. Credit: NASA

ESA says the arm capable of carrying a load of more than 17,000 pounds, or 8 metric tons, with a precision of one-fifth of an inch (5 millimeters). It will be used to transfer instruments, payloads, and other equipment outside the Russian section of the space station.

During Wednesday’s spacewalk, the two cosmonauts are also expected to relocate a telescoping Strela boom from the Zarya module toward the Poisk airlock to help facilitate movement of crew members and hardware on future spacewalks.

Artemyev will wear an Orlan spacesuit with red stripes, and Matveev’s suit will have blue markings for the spacewalk Wednesday. This will be the seventh spacewalk in Artemyev’s career and the third for Matveev.

The space station crew currently consists of seven astronauts and cosmonauts from the United States, Russia, and Italy.

The Russian spacewalk will occur as the U.S. spacesuits on the International Space Station remain unavailable for all but emergency spacewalks. NASA is investigating the cause of a water leak noticed during a March spacewalk using a U.S. spacesuit. A SpaceX Cargo Dragon spacecraft is set to depart the station Thursday and splash down off the coast of Florida, returning the leaky suit to Earth for inspections.

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