Thursday, March 26, 2009

Expedition 19 on the way to ISS

Expedition 19 launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome this morning aboard their Soyuz TMA-14.  The shuttle Discovery crew of mission STS 119 had to leave the station a day early in order to accommodate this launch.

This time the expedition commander is a Russian, Genady Padalka, with his American Flight Engineer Michael Barratt. The custom is to switch nationalities of the commanders every mission. Michael Fincke was the commander of Expedition 18. He will be returning when the crews make the official change.

Along for the ride this time is space participant Charles Simonyi, making his second space tourist flight to the ISS. I can't recall for sure, but I believe he's paying about $30 million for this privilege.  He will return with the Expedition 18 crew.

Staying on the station today is Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, who becomes another Flight Engineer crew member for the Expedition 19 crew. He arrived with the STS-119 mission last week.

The Soyuz docking will occur on Saturday.

Discovery Leaves Station

Shuttle Discovery left the ISS yesterday during the US afternoon. The view above was taken as the shuttle backed away from the station. Remember, the shuttle can't be too close to the station when firing the OMS engines and has to be very careful using maneuvering thrusters as well, as they don't want to shower the station with thrust exhaust particles - which are toxic by the way, and the force of which could damage the station.

Today the astronauts will perform a final inspection of the heatshields using the camera on the robotic arm. There is always a chance that the orbiter could have been hit by debris cruising in orbit that the avoidance radars did not detect.

Makes me wish that NASA would hurry up and invent a "deflection field" like they use on STar Trek... ;)

The Discovery should be returning to Earth on Saturday.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Discovery Docks with ISS

This afternoon, shuttle Discovery was flown up into the station's orbit, then maneuvered close to perform the RPM (Rendezvous Pitch Maneuver).  I managed to get some screenshots of the NASA broadcast during the procedure.

In the picture above you can see Discovery some distance (about a half mile) from ISS; its shuttle bay is open and the elements of the solar power truss section are visible.  Discovery moved closer little bit by little bit; this was no speedy operation.

There's a camera in the docking mechanism onboard Discovery, here we see a view of the ISS as Discovery moves ever so much closer. ISS looks a little asymmetrical; it's missing the solar panels that are carried in the shuttle bay.

At a certain safe distance, Discovery holds its approach to perform the RPM. This maneuver will flip the orbiter 360ยบ while cameras onboard the ISS take highly detailed pictures of the heatshields to compare with Discovery's own inspections, later. From time to time, the picture angle of Discovery from ISS rotated as well.

Above we see Discovery beginning its pitch up manuever.  The images being shown over the internet seemed a bit fuzzier than what I could get on the large screen TV, but watching either one was fascinating.  I couldn't help but be reminded by those amazing special effects scenes from 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the Pan Am clipper docks with the rotating wheel-like station.  Naturally, my iPod was playing the same music from the soundtrack while I watched: The Blue Danube.

Discovery pointed right at the ISS camera.  The entire maneuver took about 9 minutes.

The bottom of the Discovery clearly visible. So far, no damage has been found to any of the tiles making up the heatshields.

The maneuver is almost complete. The entire procedure is a beautiful ballet of motion set against the backdrop of the spinning Earth below. Absolutely fantastic to watch.

After the RPM was completed, Discovery pitched up again and moved position to the front of the ISS. From there, it slowly inched forward toward the docking module. I noticed that NASA has got some graphics I hadn't seen them use before; certainly their computer graphics have been improving.

Here's Discovery's view of the station dock as they move closer and closer. As the pair moved into the dark side of their orbit, navigation lights would show and there were light reflections and low light camera views.  Discovery docked nearly perfectly; no special operations were needed.

Once the airlocks were secured, and air pressures equalized, the hatches were open. As the Discovery crew came into the station, Expedition 18 commander Mike Fincke rang the bell. This is a navy tradition, transfered to space operations, to give boarding honors to the crew as they come aboard.  The crew has lots of room in the airlock area, great for crew photos.

As I watched the crew come on board, I realized that the history being made here would not be repeated many more times. With the cancellation of the shuttle flights scheduled for 2010, we won't be seeing scenes like this much more. It feels a bit sad.  I will be looking forward to the Constellation program activities, of course, but the shuttle flights have been amazing and historic, and I for one will miss them.

Monday, March 16, 2009

STS-119 On task...

Discovery fired thrusters today to fine tune its approach to the ISS.  The astronauts checked their suits and equipment for upcoming EVAs at the station.  The robotic arm with camera was used to check the heatshield. Once completed, and after ground engineers checked flight data and videos, it seems there are no worries about any damage to the orbiter during ascent. There was a slight concern for a while about a possible intersection with orbital debris, but it turned out the junk was far enough that no evasive maneuver was needed.

The problem with orbital space junk is an ever growing threat to operations in space. Last week a sudden alert was declared for ISS and the Expedition 18 crew took the necessary precaution of waiting in the Soyuz capsule until the junk danger passed.  And of course, incidents like the unexpected collision of two satellites earlier this month just make matters way worse. I suspect we will soon be hearing from NASA and other agencies about possibilities of cleaning up some of the junk.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Discovery in Orbit!

DIscovery blasted off on time at 7:43 pm EST and has reached orbit. Mission STS-119 will deliver the final set of giant solar arrays to the ISS and switch out one of the station's crew. Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata will remain on board for about 6 months, while astronaut Sandy Magnus will come home with the STS-119 crew. Kawata will be the first Japanese member of the space station crew, currently Expedition 18.  

The new power panels will allow the station to finally reach its intended crew of 6.  

Shuttle Launch on track!

Space Shuttle Discovery is on the pad, ready to launch this evening at about 5:43 pm Mountain time. So far so good, everything seems to be proceeding as normal. I've started using NASA's own Launch Blog, found on the NASA website, which gives frequent updates from the launch control room as the countdown continues. You can find the link normally under the Multimedia tab and the blog subheading.  Or, just look for the main feature blog announcement on the front page!

You can also watch NASA TV live from the NASA site, or if you DISH or cable, you probably have a channel set to NASA TV.

I was worried earlier this week that I wouldn't be able to watch the launch live, since I had to work at the CMSEC during the initially scheduled launch, but due to the seemingly inevitable launch scrubs and delays, it looks like I should see the launch fine today. Unless there's another glitch.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

120th ISS Spacewalk Complete

Astronauts Mike Fincke and Yury Lonchakov made the 120th spacewalk in support of space station assembly and maintenance yesterday. The activity lasted about 4 hours and 49 minutes. They set out a space experiment, prepared the Pirs airlock docking mechanism for docking with any future Soyuz or Progress vehicle arrivals, and took photos of the station exterior. These photos will be used to help engineers understand how the equipment is holding up in the harsh environment of space over the last decade.

I was able to listen to most of the spacewalk transmissions during the event. I was happy to see that FoxNews covered the event live on their internet channels. Of course, NASA always broadcasts such events live from their website. Most people would probably find the broadcasts boring, but I'm such a space nerd that it's all fascinating for me. I did notice how some of the station's exterior sections are beginning to discolor over time. It will be interesting to follow this up over time and learn which materials are prone to do that.

The NASA picture above shows the two spacewalkers in action. They are both using the Russian cosmonaut spacesuit designs.  Both astronauts have been on board ISS since October, and are due to return to Earth in April. They will be coming home using the Soyuz capsule currently docked to ISS.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Kepler and STS-119 Updates

Kepler launched successfully aboard its Delta II launch vehicle Friday night. The blast off was on time, and no glitches or delays were reported. Nice for a NASA success after the failure of the launch of their global warming satellite earlier this month.

Shuttle Discovery awaits launch on its pad for take-off scheduled March 11. This will be a night launch, at 9:20 p.m. EST. The astronauts arrived at the Kennedy Space Center on Sunday and preparations are going forward on schedule.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Kepler Launch tonight!

The Kepler observatory sits atop a Delta II rocket at the Kennedy Space Center, ready for its launch tonight at about 10:49 EST. It's likely NASA TV will broadcast the launch live, as this is a fairly notably project. Kepler's mission is to spend over 3 years studying a specific section of our galaxy studying each suspect star very closely- for Earth-like planets!

Tonight's launch takes place from Complex 17-B, which launched its first Thor missile way back in 1957. Historical launches from this complex have included the Explorer and Pioneer satellites, and one of my favorites, Solar Max. The LC-17 complex (pads A and B) are operated by Air Force 45th Space Wing. The picture above shows the first stage of a Delta II rocket being lifted into position at the mobile service tower on pad 17-B.

Good Luck, Kepler!  

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Close Calls

Whew! That was close!

Looks like Earth narrowly avoided tragedy this week as a rocky chunk squeeked by our planet. Supposedly about 35 meters in diameter,  it passed over the Pacific at its closest encounter. Apparently astronomers only detected this beastie only 3 days before its passage. Some scientists have claimed this was the size of the object that detonated above Siberia in 1908 causing massive devastation to the Tunguska forest. Speculation that, I say, as we have no evidence of what that was... Needless to say, though, (and I'll say it!) if this thing HAD hit a populated area there could have been terrific destruction.  I''ll pass. Oh wait, it did... ; )

NOW I've checked and it seems another rock goes by the Earth tomorrow (Mar. 6th)! Smaller, this one, at about 25 meters. Farther away, too. it will pass by at about 0.9 Lunar distance (lunar distance = 240,000 miles). Still, that's pretty close as far as NEO's go (Near Earth Object).

Somebody out there got closer with their aim...

Monday, March 2, 2009

50 YA: Discoverer I & Pioneer IV

This entry covers two satellite launches from Fifty Years Ago. On February 28, 1959, the Air Force launched Discoverer I into a polar orbit on a Thor-Agena A booster from the Pacific Missile Range. Evidently there was trouble tracking the 1,450 pound satellite. Well, it was the early days, after all.

Then on March 1, 1959, Pioneer IV was launched on a Juno II rocket into a solar orbit. A NASA directed project, this satellite had an interesting path to orbit- they launched it on a trajectory so that it actually passed within 37,000 miles of the moon before reaching orbit around the sun. They managed to keep in radio contact out to some 406,000 miles away. It was the first US Satellite to orbit the sun. This satellite was the fourth in the series of projects for the International Geophysical Year series. The picture above is shows how Pioneer 3 and 4 looked.