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January 25, 2023

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Astronauts conduct first ISS spacewalk of 2023

Two astronauts embarked on the first spacewalk of 2023 on Friday as they worked toward upgrading the International Space Station's power generation system.

NASA astronaut Nicole Mann teamed up with Koichi Wakata of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency for the morning spacewalk, which NASA officials said lasted seven hours and 21 minutes. They installed a modification kit at the far end of the ISS, allowing for the future installation of the roll-out solar array.

The spacewalk was scheduled to start at 8:15 a.m., EST, but NASA officials said the operation was ahead of schedule with both astronauts setting their spacesuits to battery power about a minute earlier, marking the official start of the mission.

"Wakata and Mann were joined on Thursday by NASA Flight Engineer Frank Rubio for final spacewalk preparations," NASA said in a statement. "The two spacewalkers along with Rubio staged tools and hardware inside the Quest airlock during the morning. The trio then spent the afternoon reviewing spacewalk steps and procedures before readying the two spacesuits for operations."

Friday's spacewalk was the first for Mann and Wakata, who came aboard the ISS on SpaceX's Crew-5 mission in October. The pair re-entered the space station after their work Friday afternoon.

Astronauts have already installed four of the six planned ISS Roll-Out Solar Arrays on previous spacewalks.

Rubio and astronaut Josh Cassada on Dec. 22 took part in a 7 1/2 hour spacewalk to install and deploy a roll-out solar array on the station's Port-4 truss segment. The pair also installed another roll-out solar array on the Starboard-4 truss segment on Dec. 3.

NASA had earlier postponed the Dec. 22 spacewalk because of the potential of space junk in the area. The space station was moved to avoid the fragment of the upper stage of an old Russian Fregat-SB, allowing the spacewalk to continue.

SpaceX's Starship clears latest hurdle in quest to return to moon

The maiden mission of SpaceX's Starship into orbit could come as soon as March following a successful dry launch run, bringing Elon Musk's dream of viable interplanetary travel a step closer.

SpaceX said its engineers conducted a full fueling test on Monday night of the company's reusable Starship launch system at its Starbase test site in Boca Chica, Texas, with a T-10 launch countdown to just before engine ignition.

"Starship completed its first full flight-like wet dress rehearsal at Starbase today," SpaceX tweeted late Monday, saying the test would help verify a full launch countdown sequence, as well as the performance of Starship and the orbital pad for "flight-like operations".

Musk, the company's chief executive, said in a tweet earlier this month that Starship could be ready for its first test flight as soon as late February, with a launch in March "highly likely."

The company, which missed planned schedules for Starship in the past, plans to use the system to send humans back to the moon and eventually to Mars.

Any launch is contingent on U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates commercial space launches, issuing a launch license for Starship in the imminent future.

NASA is heavily invested in Starship to the tune of $4 billion, to provide a vital element of its Artemis III manned mission to the moon.

In November, NASA's Artemis I completed an unmanned mission that flew to the moon, around it, and back to Earth successfully. Artemis II will be the first crewed test flight around the moon.

Artemis III is not expected to blast off until next year at the earliest, but NASA is banking on Starship to get a human crew onto the lunar surface for the first time in more than half a century.

The agency awarded a $2.9 billion contract to SpaceX in April 2021 to develop a version that could land humans on the moon. In November, NASA expanded that contract by $1.15 billion for SpaceX to provide a second crewed landing demonstration mission in 2027 as part of the agency's Artemis IV mission.

"Returning astronauts to the moon to learn, live and work is a bold endeavor," NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said at the time.

"With multiple planned landers, from SpaceX and future partners, NASA will be better positioned to accomplish the missions of tomorrow: conducting more science on the surface of the moon than ever before and preparing for crewed missions to Mars."