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Astronauts Move Space Station's Vital Connecting Node

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Nov. 14: The Harmony connecting node and its PMA-2 shuttle docking port hang off the end of the international space station's robotic arm. (NASA)

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) moved their orbital laboratory's latest addition to a new perch Wednesday as engineers on Earth studied a spacesuit glitch that may impact the crew's spacewalk plans.

Wielding a 58-foot (18-meter) robotic arm, Expedition 16 commander Peggy Whitson and flight engineer Dan Tani relocated the nearly 16-ton Harmony connecting node — a school bus-sized module that will anchor future international laboratories to the ISS — to the forward end of the station's U.S. Destiny lab.

"Harmony has found its Destiny, its new home at the forward end of the International Space Station," said NASA commentator John Ira Petty as astronauts attached the hub-like node into place.

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The Italian-built Harmony node is equipped with six docking ports in all, two of which provide connections between the ISS and NASA space shuttles.

Four other berths will be used to connect European and Japanese laboratories, as well as other modules, to the ISS.

The European Space Agency's Columbus lab, set to launch Dec. 6 aboard NASA's shuttle Atlantis, will be the first to arrive at Harmony next month.

"It adds primarily the capability to add additional modules," Tani said of Harmony in a NASA interview. "We talk about the space station sort of like a Tinker toy, and this is one of those connector modules that has lots of holes in it that you can add additional modules to."

The module's successful Wednesday move sets the stage for a pair of spacewalks next week to route power and cooling lines to Harmony, though the planned Nov. 20 and Nov. 24 excursions must wait until NASA engineers clear the space station's U.S. spacesuits for orbital work.

NASA halted all U.S. spacewalk plans earlier this week after an astronaut smelled smoke inside a U.S. spacesuit — known as an Extravehicular Mobility Unit — during a Friday ground test at the agency's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

Engineers did not find any evidence of combustion or damage in the test spacesuit, NASA spokesperson Brandi Dean told SPACE.com late Tuesday. They will present their findings to a mishap investigation team later today, she added.

NASA could clear the space station's U.S. spacesuits for use as early as today or Thursday, well ahead of next week's planned spacewalks, space agency officials said.

Harmony's swift move

Harmony's relocation today began at 4:21 a.m. EST (0921 GMT) as Whitson commanded a series of bolts to retract, loosening the module's grasp on the port side of the space station's Unity node.

Six minutes later, Tani plucked the massive node and its 1.5-ton shuttle docking port free from the ISS.

"This, I think, officially ends all of my planned robotics operations for my mission here," said Tani, who is set to return to Earth next month aboard Atlantis. "I have really enjoyed running the arm and hopefully I didn't scare too many people down there."

"It all looked beautiful from the ground," NASA astronaut Kevin Ford replied from Mission Control.

Whitson and Tani completed the move about two hours ahead of schedule as they and Russian crewmate Yuri Malenchenko continue with a busy month of ISS construction work to ready the space station for December's planned shuttle mission.

They opened the hatches between Harmony and the ISS at about 11:52 a.m. EST (1652 GMT).

Expedition 16 astronauts primed Harmony for its move during a Nov. 9 spacewalk, then equipped the module with its shuttle docking port early Monday. Harmony, itself, arrived at the ISS on Oct. 26 during NASA's STS-120 shuttle mission.

As Tani hoisted Harmony to its U.S. Destiny lab berth, cameras mounted to the space station's exterior returned stunning views of the connecting module backlit by a bright blue Earth.

"It is amazing," Whitson said. "I love my job."

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