Space shuttle Atlantis' crew along with
NASA TV via AFP - Getty Images
The international space station's newly installed solar array unfurls Thursday, as shown in a picture taken from NASA Television.
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updated 9/14/2006 5:32:05 PM ET 2006-09-14T21:32:05

NASA unfurled the international space station’s new solar wings for the first time Thursday, in an exercise that looked like a giant accordion being stretched out in orbit.

“Big day for space station. Congratulations,” Mission Control radioed the space shuttle Atlantis as the electricity generating panels glinted like gold bars in the sunlight. “We’re all extremely happy.”

The unfurling of the 240-foot (73-meter) wings was delayed about three hours because of a software glitch involving the hardware’s Ferris wheel-like rotating joint. That mechanism allows the solar panels to move with the sun to maximize the amount of electricity generated.

The crew did not run into any trouble with the folded-up panels sticking together in the cold, a problem that came up during a mission in 2000. This time, NASA devised a method for unfurling the solar wings that allowed them to be heated up by the sun.

The solar wings — part of a $372 million addition that arrived aboard Atlantis earlier this week — were folded up and mounted on blankets during the ride into space. They will provide about a quarter of the space station’s power when the orbiting outpost is completed in 2010.

The flight marks the first time since the Columbia disaster three and a half years ago that construction on the half-built space station has resumed. The new piece was installed during two spacewalks earlier this week.

Astronauts Joe Tanner and Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper will again don their spacesuits on Friday to conduct the third and final spacewalk of the 11-day mission. Among other things, they will replace an antenna and gather up science experiments.

Atlantis undocks from the space station on Sunday and will return home on Wednesday.

After the unfurling of the solar wings, the astronauts aboard Atlantis and the space station had some down time and answered questions submitted by people on Earth. They were asked about sleep, sights and smells 200 miles (320 kilometers) above Earth.

Thomas Reiter, a German who went up to the space station in March, told questioners that “it’s very refreshing actually to sleep in space.” Being weightless means you float around in your sleeping bag and don’t have to worry about putting pressure on your side or back, he said.

Reiter said he has spotted the Egyptian pyramids from space. As for the space station, Reiter said it does not smell like a locker room, as one listener suggested, but rather has a fleeting “technical smell” from all the equipment.

A Canadian schoolgirl asked why the astronauts need the robotic arm to move things if everything is weightless in space. Atlantis astronaut Steve MacLean explained that while objects don’t have weight, they still have inertial mass — if you pushed something, it would keep going forever, he said, so the arm is needed to help stop things.

MacLean, a Canadian, was also congratulated by his country’s prime minister.

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Video: Atlantis coverage

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