ISS Gets a Robot-Assisted Battery Switch

NASA uses a Canadian-built robot to replace and upgrade the ISS’s aging batteries.

Japan’s H-II Transfer Vehicle, the final resting place of the ISS's old batteries. (Image courtesy of NASA.)

Japan’s H-II Transfer Vehicle, the final resting place of the ISS’s old batteries. (Image courtesy of NASA.)

2017 is only a few days old, but there’s already a lot happening aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Just after the dawning of the new year (depending on what part of the planet you’re on, I guess) a robotic mission to upgrade the station’s batteries was already underway.

According to NASA, “In a remarkable demonstration of robotic prowess, ground controllers used the Canadian-built “Dextre” Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator over the weekend to install three new lithium-ion batteries in the International Space Station’s 3A power channel Integrated Electronics Assembly (IEA) pallet on the starboard 4 truss.”

Though NASA’s statement might read a bit awkward, Dextre’s performance expertly set the stage for two spacewalk missions that will occur this coming Friday. During these missions astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Flight Engineer Peggy Whitson will install three adaptor plates in place of three defunct nickel-hydrogen batteries. Following on these spacewalks Dextre will return to the outside of the ISS where it will install another three batteries in the 1A power channel IEA of the starboard truss.

While Dextre’s job looks like it will be further evidence that robots can be an important if not indispensable part of the ISS project, the space station’s battery replacement process is far from complete.

Over the coming years, all of the ISS’s 48 batteries (which were installed in 1998) will be removed and replaced with 24 more advanced lithium ion units. All in all that adds up to a lot of work for Dextre, and plenty of time for it to prove its worth to the folks at mission control.

What’s to become of the ISS’s ancient batteries?

Well, since there isn’t an effective recycling program in outer space, each battery unit will be loaded above the Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle attached to the ISS. Later this month that vessel will separate from the station and travel back to Earth where it will be burned to a crisp as it reenters out planet’s atmosphere.

Now that’s one way to get rid of batteries.

For more news from low Earth orbit, find out if the ISS is going private.