Time for a Charge: International Space Station Gets First New Battery in 18 Years

Shelby Rogers

The International Space Station finally got a bit of a refresh when two NASA astronauts replaced old batteries. This marks the first time in nearly 20 years that the batteries had been replaced.

In place of the 48 old nickel-hydrogen units went 24 new lithium-ion batteries. These smaller batteries should power the ISS until its completion over a decade from now. And according to NASA, "lithium ion cells are also cheaper to make, possess flexibility that allow for different design modifications."

The ISS's truss has eight separate large Solar Array Wings. Each one attaches to a power channel with three batteries. Initially, each string of batteries had two nickel-hydrogen units. However, with the new upgrade, the battery count is halved.

Most of the work comes thanks to the ISS's Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator (SPDM), or Dextre for short. The Canadian-built robot serves as the ISS's personal handyman in situations exactly like this one. According to NASA:

Having Dextre on call will reduce the amount of risky spacewalks to do routine chores, thus giving astronauts more time for science, the main goal of the ISS. Dextre’s special skills and awesome location also offer a unique and opportune testing ground for new robotics concepts like servicing satellites in space.

Thanks to the help of the Dextre system, Peggy Whitson and Commander Shane Kimbrough finished the task in just four hours. They were even able to get other tasks finished ahead of schedule.

Mark Garcia on the NASA blog called the event "a remarkable demonstration of robotic prowess."

Lithium-ion batteries themselves signify a technological upgrade. These batteries can be found in most smartphones and were first developed in the 1970s. Since Sony produced them commercially in 1991, they've become significantly cheaper and more ubiquitous.