Cosmic space repairs show our best

While Congress and the President squabble daily, astronauts and ground-based technicians worked cooperatively.

The Editorial Board
Tue, 03 Dec 2019 05:00:00 GMT

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When we start to think the federal government can’t do anything right, we need only check in on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Two astronauts, an American and an Italian, worked hundreds of miles above the Earth recently with Mission Control in Houston to repair technical parts on the International Space Station. Via the live video connections, earthlings followed the extraordinarily complicated series of spacewalks that took place over a four-phase schedule to fix the cosmic ray detector.

A $2 billion detector was installed in in 2011 to help locate one of the cosmos’ most mysterious unsolved cases: dark matter, which is what physicists believe holds the universe together. The scientific data provided by the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer is important because dark matter is thought to make up about a quarter of the universe. The living room-sized instrument already has studied more than 148 billion charged cosmic rays.

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The 7-ton detector, with a 3-foot magnet ring at its core, lasted five years longer than planned, before it was hobbled by coolant-pump failures. It is those coolant pump failures that NASA is fixing with its space walks. The device was not designed to be serviced by spacewalking astronauts.

The work is being done by Italian Luca Parmitano and American Andrew Morgan. Three spacewalks have been completed, and one more is planned. Mr. Parmitano called it “open-heart surgery.”

When the astronauts are done, the International Space Station again can detect cosmic rays, and two pieces of space junk will make their gradual descent into Earth’s atmosphere to be burnt on re-entry. The work, considered the most difficult attempted in space since the repair of Hubble decades ago, shows us at our best.

While Congress and the President squabble daily, astronauts and ground-based technicians worked cooperatively to fix the International Space Station and give it additional years of functionality. It’s a noteworthy achievement.