First use of robotic arm by astronauts a success

Astronauts debuted the international space station's newest piece of equipment Saturday during a successful but very limited test.

Space shuttle Discovery crew members Akihiko Hoshide and Karen Nyberg moved two of the six joints on the Japanese Kibo lab's robotic arm for the first time, maneuvering them very slightly with a series of commands.

“The very first maneuver was completed successfully,” Hoshide told Japanese flight controllers near Tokyo.

Full deployment of the 33-foot arm will be done after Discovery leaves the station next week. However, it won't be used for any actual work until after the launch into orbit next year of the billion-dollar lab's third and final section – a “porch” for exterior experiments – and a second, smaller robotic arm.

After he and Nyberg finished testing the robotic arm, Hoshide reflected on what Kibo means for Japan.

“It's a big milestone. We have our own house here now,” Hoshide said during media interviews Saturday.

The initial deployment of the robotic arm provides room for astronauts Michael Fossum and Ronald Garan Jr. to finish some final outfitting of the lab today during their third and final spacewalk of the current shuttle mission.

On Saturday, Fossum and Garan got word that an extra task had been added to the spacewalk.

Fossum will collect samples of grease and small amounts of debris detected on a solar wing rotating joint on the space station's left side.

The grease and debris will be analyzed by engineers back on Earth to see if it can help them figure out what caused a similar joint on the right side of the station to be clogged with metal shavings.

The right side joint has been used only sparingly since last fall, hampering energy production. The joints enable the space station's solar arrays, which provide electrical power, to rotate and track the sun.

The left side joint is working normally, but engineers are trying to prevent it from experiencing problems, as well. Fossum said he wasn't worried about the joint.

It “looks to be in pretty darn good shape,” he said.

Fossum and Garan also planned to replace an empty nitrogen gas tank during today's spacewalk.

Kibo, Japanese for hope, was delivered by the shuttle and installed on the space station this week.