Boeing

Batteries included

A spacewalk and power upgrade for the International Space Station.

By Ebony Bowens, Electrical Systems Engineer

Boeing Defense, Space & Security

We watched intently from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, as astronauts Nick Hague, Anne McClain and Christina Koch worked 200 miles (322 kilometers) above us on the International Space Station during two separate spacewalks.

From my spot at the Mission Evaluation Room’s Phoenix console, I saw them install new, lithium-ion batteries that will give the station new life. It is an honor and a privilege to be a part of the team that made this possible.

The reason for the upgrade? Eight solar arrays convert solar energy to electrical power for the space station. As the station orbits around the Earth, it is frequently not in direct sunlight. During this eclipse period (about 30 minutes of every 90-minute orbit), rechargeable batteries provide the station with continuous power to sustain life-support systems and experiments.

The lithium-ion batteries are a Boeing-initiated upgrade to the previous nickel-hydrogen ones. They will dramatically increase the station’s operating efficiency and help ensure it remains operational—and able to welcome commercial crew spacecraft—until 2030 and beyond.

Lithium-ion cells can store a lot more energy than nickel-hydrogen, and can be charged and discharged more rapidly. They also aren’t as prone to the “memory effect,” which occurs when a battery is recharged before it is fully empty, diminishing its overall capacity.

The new batteries, developed in partnership with supplier Aerojet Rocketdyne, launched in September 2018 aboard a Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency HTV cargo craft.

My team and I developed the methods used by astronauts to install and activate the batteries on orbit. We also led the creation of procedures and flight rules, building physical models to support astronaut training ahead of real-time battery installation. This preparation proved vital, as astro­nauts were tasked with troubleshooting earlier work and upgraded power systems during a third spacewalk just over a week later.

Pursuing a lifelong dream of working in the space industry, I joined Boeing’s International Space Station program in 2016 after working as an intern and electrical engineer on the product development team in our commercial airplanes part of the business.

The knowledge I gained of battery capabilities, tools and reconditioning procedures used to create electrical bundles for airplanes was something I turned to when developing battery procedures for the space station. Engineering standards are incredibly robust and unique when you’re dealing with a spacecraft, but the experience I had developing procedures for aircraft allowed my team to deliver better results to our NASA customer.

With the batteries successfully installed on the orbital platform, my team at Boeing’s Houston site will conduct annual capacity tests from the ground and perform troubleshooting procedures if needed.

Sidebar

Boeing-developed spacesuit material to be tested in harsh space conditions

A unique material developed by a Boeing engineer to protect spacewalkers has been launched to the International Space Station for its most challenging test yet.

Kavya Manyapu, a Boeing test engineer in Houston, Texas, designed the material to shield astronauts from dust, radiation and other hazards when they leave the safety of their spacecraft to explore the surface of the moon and Mars. This is a different challenge from the one posed to astronauts inside a spacecraft where they can wear thinner garments.

“I wanted to contribute to the future of human space­flight, particularly in making sustainable missions on the surface a reality,” Manyapu said.

Launched in April aboard a Cygnus cargo space-craft, two small 2-by-2-inch (5-by-5-centime­ter) samples of materials will be positioned outside the space station. They will stay there for months exposed to the harsh conditions of space, including drastic temperature changes, constant bombard­ment by cosmic rays and a complete lack of any kind of atmosphere. In other words, all the things that a spacesuit faces during a mission.

The new material, which can be used in spacesuits as well as space habitats, comes at a time when NASA is developing mission architectures to send astronauts to the surface of the moon within five years and to explore the lunar region in a sustainable fashion.

The material relies on carbon nanotubes and other conductive fibers to interlock tightly in certain conditions without causing the astronauts to lose critical mobility as they move around inside their suits. During Apollo, moonwalkers’ spacesuits collected lunar dust that would bind the fibers and limit their movement.

Manyapu developed the technology as part of her doctoral study in aerospace sciences from the University of North Dakota. She and Boeing Technical Fellow Leora Peltz have two U.S. patents and one pending based on the research.

– Steve Siceloff