Two Russian cosmonauts on August 15 spent nearly eight hours on a spacewalk setting up an antenna for tracking birds and animals on Earth and sending a series of tiny satellites flying into orbit.
Sergei Prokopyev used his gloved right hand to fling four research satellites into space. The first minisatellite safely tumbled away from the International Space Station as it soared 400 kilometers above the U.S. state of Illinois.
By the time the fourth satellite was launched 14 minutes later, the station had flown thousands of kilometers to the east and was close to Spain. Two of the satellites were only the size of tissue boxes.
Prokopyev and Oleg Artemyev spent the next several hours installing the antenna for a German-led animal-tracking project known as Icarus, short for International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space.
The cosmonauts had to unreel, drag, and connect long, white cables to provide power and data to the system. At one point, Artemyev had to pull out a sharp knife to deal with a twisted cable.
"Can you give us some more difficult tasks, please?" Artemyev joked as he routed the cables, a long and tedious chore that ended up lasting nearly an hour longer than anticipated.
A spokesman for NASA, the U.S. space agency, said the cosmonauts were in "great shape" after completing all their tasks.
The spacewalk on August 15 was the 212th from the International Space Station, and the seventh this year, NASA said. The station, run jointly by Russia and the United States, was launched 20 years ago at a time of much lower tensions between the countries.
The spacewalk was the first for Prokopyev since he arrived at the station in June for a half-year mission. It is the third for Artemyev, who increased his total spacewalk time to 20 hours and 20 minutes.
Most of the scientific research performed on the station would be impossible to do on Earth.
The station is an ideal place for an animal-tracking antenna, compared with other orbiting satellites, said project director Martin Wikelski of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany.
That's because spacewalkers are on hand to fix anything that breaks and the computers on the station are better protected from space radiation, he said.
The project will start out tracking blackbirds and turtle doves already outfitted with small global positioning system (GPS) tags, then move on to other songbirds, fruit bats, and bigger wildlife.
Wikelski said researchers had ear tags for big mammals like gazelle, jaguars, camels, and elephants, as well as leg-band tags for larger birds such as storks. The tags are easy to wear and should not bother the animals, he said.
Wikelski watched the spacewalk from Russian Mission Control outside Moscow. He said researchers can better understand animal behavior through lifelong monitoring. Among the things they hope to learn: where the animals migrate, and how they grow up and manage to survive.
"We also learn where, when, and why they die," he explained in an e-mail to the Associated Press, "so we can protect our wild pets."
The space station is also home to three Americans and one German astronaut. They are planning to conduct two spacewalks next month.