With Soyuz MS-12 safely back on Earth, the remaining six-person International Space Station Expedition 61 crew is preparing for nearly a dozen spacewalks over the next several months.
The last days of September 2019 were particularly busy for ISS operations. Between Sept. 25 and Oct. 3, there were nine people living and working aboard the outpost because of a rare direct crew handover.
Launching via Soyuz MS-15 to join the outpost’s then Expedition 60 crew was Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka, NASA astronaut Jessica Meir and United Arab Emirates astronaut Hazza Al Mansouri.
On Oct. 3, Russian cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin and NASA's Nick Hague returned to Earth in Soyuz MS-12 along with Al Mansouri, who was only expected to stay aboard the ISS for this short 8-day stay.
Al Mansouri took the spot of NASA's Christina Koch, who launched in Soyuz MS-12 back in March. Koch will remain aboard the ISS until February 2020 and return home in NASA astronaut Drew Morgan's Soyuz MS-13 seat. Morgan himself will be taking Al Mansouri's spot in Soyuz MS-15 when it returns in April 2020.
Once Soyuz MS-12 undocked, Expedition 61 formally started. It consists of Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency (he is also serving as ISS commander for this crew increment), Russian cosmonauts Aleksandr Skvortsov and Skripochka, as well as NASA astronauts Koch, Meir and Morgan.
During this direct crew handover, the Japanese Kounotori 8 spacecraft rendezvoused with the outpost. It was then captured by the Canadarm2 remote manipulator system before being berthed the the Earth-facing port of the Harmony module.
The cargo ship brought several thousand kilograms of equipment to the ISS, the most prominent being six new lithium-ion batteries to be installed on the space station’s external truss.
These lithium-ion batteries are expected to be installed on the P6 truss over the course of five spacewalks starting with U.S. EVA-56 on Oct. 6. The batteries are replacing older nickel-hydrogen units.
Because the work site so far away, the robotic arm has limited reach in that area, which means more spacewalks will be required to perform what would normally be done remotely by Earth-based robotics teams.
This will be the third of four sets of spacewalks since January 2017 that are being performed to upgrade the outpost's aging nickel-hydrogen batteries with advanced lithium-ion units.
Once those tasks are accomplished, the Expedition 61 crew will begin preparing for another set of spacewalks to repair the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. NASA said these could start as early as November.
“It’s a really exciting time,” said NASA Astronaut Office Deputy Chief Megan McArthur during an agency briefing on Oct. 4. “Every astronaut dreams of getting to do spacewalks and we have 10 now coming up really fast. So it’s kind of a spacewalk bonanza.”
According to NASA, U.S. EVA-56 will be performed by Koch and Morgan. Koch will be the lead spacewalker and wear a spacesuit with red stripes, while Morgan will wear a suit with no stripes.
That first spacewalk is expected to start at 11:50 UTC Oct. 6 and last for about 6.5 hours.