Monday, February 28, 2011

STS133: First Spacewalk Completed

Back of an Astronaut in the center.

At the end of six and a half hours, astronauts Steve Bowen and Al Drew completed some relocation of station exterior tools and rails, and moved the 800-pound broken ammonia pump. It was quite a list of tasks to accomplish. They were assisted with use of the robotic Canadarm operated by astronaut Mike Barratt and Commander Scott Kelly. Kelly is the twin brother of Commander Mike Kelly who will be commanding STS134, and who is also the husband of Congresswoman Gabriella Giffords who was wounded in the head in the infamous Arizona shooting recently.

And they pay them to do this!?!

Steve Bowen has another record. Not only is he the first astronaut to do back-to-back missions, he is also the first astronaut to do spacewalks on consecutive missions. He replaced astronaut Tim Kopra, who was injured in a bicycle accident before the launch.

Discovery's Last RPM

Discovery in holding pattern at ISS. Open cargo bay displays the Permanent Multipurpose Module and the Express Logistics Carrier 4.

Space Shuttle Discovery arrived at the ISS around mid-day Saturday. Before docking, all shuttle flight snow perform the RPM, or Rendezvous Pitch Maneuver. This nice piece of flying involves flipping the shuttle end-over-end so the cameras on the ISS can get great shots of the reentry tiles on the shuttle bottom. These shots will later be analyzed by NASA engineers to determine if the shuttle is safe for its later de-orbit burn and landing. After the RPM, the pilot swoops the shuttle upward in a 90 degree arc to position the open bay towards the ISS docking port. Finally, ever so slowly the shuttle is moved into docking with the ISS.

View of ISS through shuttle docking port. The crosshairs point to exactly where Discovery will be docking. The shuttle is below the ISS, but not in position for docking yet.

In position for the RPM. Note the interesting shadow of the ISS on the shuttle nose.

Here she goes...

Shuttle at 90 degrees up, pointing directly at the ISS cameras.

Starting to flip onto it's back.

Passing 180 degrees and still flipping. Shuttle main engines in view.

About 280 degrees and continuing.

Alllllllmost there...

RPM complete, 90 degree swoop into docking position complete, and edging closer to the ISS (in upper corner).

On Final Approach to the docking port. part of station blocks the view of the shuttle, but you can see Discovery's nose underneath the module right of center.

Graphic in Mission COntrol. Shuttle approaching the ISS.

Closing on the docking port.

Capture. Docking complete.

Discovery docked, view blocked by Japanese module. In this view you have a real snapshot of international cooperation. Modules from Japan, Russia, USA, ESA, and CanadArm.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Discovery on Last Voyage to ISS

Go Discovery!

Mission Controllers were a bit nervous as the shuttle stack waited on Pad 39A. Because of some concerns with time running out for today's launch window, it seemed the shuttle might not go. Finally at 2:53 p.m. MST, the engines and boosters ignited and the shuttle lifted off the Pad, with about 1 second of the launch window to spare.

Robonaut 2 will be permanently transfered to the ISS to assist astronauts in performing maintenance duties. The mechanoid "twittered" to its followers during the trip and will continue to do so for the duration of its mission.

Also on board is the PMM, the Permanent Multipurpose Module, currently filled with Robonaut 2 and an enormous amount of supplies and equipment for the station. Attached to the PMM is the Express Logistics Carrier 4, an exterior storage rack that holds larger experiment equipment.

Discovery is due to dock with ISS on Saturday.

ESA ATV-2 docks with ISS

ATV-2 on final approach.

EUropean Space Agency's ATV-2, the Johannes Kepler, has successfully docked at the International Space Station this morning. Using a combination of remote controls and its own autoguidance system, the cargo pod safely approached the station and finally was secured to the end of the Zvesda module on ISS.

ATV-2 location on the right.

The large cargo spacecraft is delivering crew supplies, oxygen, propellant, and research supplies. Enough of the propellant is reserved for using the ATV-2's engines to boost the ISS to a slightly higher orbit. Keep in mind that the solar wind helps to push the ISS lower and lower over long periods of time. The old Skylab station was eventually pushed into a burn-up de-orbit because of this.

ATV-2 hidden behind Zvesda solar panel on left. Two Soyuz or Progress vehicles can also be seen docked to ISS.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

STS-133 Gets Ready for Launch

Night view of Discovery on Pad 39A.

The Countdown has started. Mission STS-133 on shuttle Discovery is set to launch on Thursday, February 24th at 2:50 pm MST. This last mission for the Discovery will take supplies in the Express Logistics Carrier 4 to the International Space Station. The Cargo container was previously known as the LEONARDO Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM). It is planned to leave the module attached to the station to act as an additional storage area and space for some experiments.

T-38 parking zone.

The crew of STS-133 arrived at Kennedy Space Center in a small squadron of T-38 jets. Astronauts use the jet trainers as rapid transit across the country during their busy training schedule. Now they'll prepare for the actual launch this week.

Meet R2.

Although Discovery isn't taking any human crewmembers to the ISS, it is carrying a passenger. R2, or Robonaut 2, will become a permanent inhabitant of the ISS helping the astronauts with their tasks. It's task to help scientists and engineers learn how humanoid robots can act in microgravity to help human crews explore space.

As this is Discovery's last space trip, it is one to watch and wonder.

Monday, February 21, 2011

50 YA - Atlas Tests

MA-2 Atlas test.

In February 1961 the race to put a man in space was definitely ON.

On February 24, NASA launched a test of the Atlas rocket carrying an unmanned Mercury Capsule. Actually I have found references that describe the test as having taken place on February 21, 22 and 24th. At this point I'm not really sure which day it was launched!

Color photo of launch.

The Atlas lifted off from Launch Complex 14 at 2:10pm. The main objectives of the test were to verify that the capsule could withstand the tremendous g-forces of a steep re-entry, and that the rocket could place the capsule where directed. The mission was a success, placing the capsule in a suborbital arc that lasted about 18 minutes. The capsule reached an altitude of 114 miles.

Cool fact: The capsule, designated Mercury # 6, is on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Solar Eruptions hit Earth

The Sun never sleeps...

Since February 15th there have been a series of eruptions on the surface of the Sun. These eruptions emphasize the fact that the Sun is becoming more active after a lengthy period of "inactivity" which featured incredibly low counts of sunspots and other surface activity. The Sun is approaching its regular activity pattern in the 11-year solar cycle.

The eruptions from the Sun, designated X-class solar flares, have sent wave after wave of charged solar particles toward the Earth. Thankfully, our magnetic field will protect us from the most dangerous effects of the blasts, and will result in some magnificent Aurora displays in the far North. However, the danger we face is disruption to the orbital communications networks that we depend on for our quality of life. Besides navigation and power systems, communications and space equipment may be at risk.

NASA is also monitoring the blasts to see if their strength can put astronaut lives at risk. In worst cases, the Astronauts have some areas on the ISS where they can be protected from the worst of the radiation, but there is always a danger. Further away from Earth, astronauts on missions away from our magnetic field would be in great danger. This risk has always been part of any planning for deep space missions.

We've been learning more and more about the dangers the Sun presents to our civilization's electronic lifelines. We have to learn how to build more radiation resistant systems to withstand any such future attacks.

Friday, February 18, 2011

ATV on its Way to ISS

Cutaway view of the ATV cargo carrier. Credit: ESA

The European Space Agency launched the Ariane 5 rocket from its location on the north end of South America on Wednesday. This is the second launch of the ESA's cargo module, and is named after the famous astronomer Johannes Kepler. The ATV 2(Automated Transfer Vehicle) is carrying seven metric tons of cargo to the International Space Station and is planned to dock on the 24th. It will stay attached to the station for some time and will act as storage for waste material and garbage until ready for dumping the entire thing to burn up in the atmosphere.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

50 YA - Explorer IX

That's no moon...

Explorer IX was placed into Earth orbit on February 16, 1961 after a successful launch on a new Scout rocket. The satellite was designed to inflate after launch and test atmospheric densities in low orbit. Its aluminum foil layers on the skin functioned as the craft's antenna but it's tracking system failed after launch. The mission controllers used the craft's camera system to help keep track of the spacecraft. Power was supplied by solar cells placed around the outer skin.

The launch was notable for being the first successful launch of a satellite on a solid rocket motor (the Scout launcher), and for being the first successful launch from the Virginia Wallops Island facility.

Explorer IX would finally burn up in the atmosphere 50 months later. An entire series of probes like Explorer IX would eventually be designed for testing the properties of our outer atmosphere.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

ISS Spacewalk Now

Cosmonauts in action.

This morning on NASA TV we can watch a spacewalk by two cosmonauts, Kondratyev and Skripochka, on the outside of the ISS. The first experiment to be worked on is the Radiometria system outside of the Zvesda module. This experiment picks up signals from sensors on Earth that will be useful for earthquake monitoring and studies. The second experiment is the Molniya Gamma module, which monitors gamma and optical wavelengths emitted from lightning and thunderstorms. Following that, they will retrieve some materials which have been exposed to space for some time.

Keeping an eye on lightning.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Stardust meets Comet Tempel-1

StarDust-Next, formerly Stardust.

This is a mission where we got our money's worth. The Stardust-Next mission successfully placed the Stardust explorer craft through a close fly-by of comet Tempel 1 lat last night. The craft closed to its closest approach of 112 miles. I stayed up a bit late to watch the excitement at JPL mission control as the events occurred. Well, excitement for space geeks, at least. And I am one for sure.

The Stardust spacecraft has been out there for about 12 years. Its original successful mission was to pass near comet Wild 2 back in 2004, collect a sample of the dust surrounding the comet, and return the sample to Earth. This mission is described at this link:

One of the cool events of that mission was to watch the sample capsule land dangerously in the desert near Salt Lake City UT.

With the mission concluded, NASA/JPL planned to give the craft a second, new mission. Retasking this spacecraft would cost millions less than creating a new spacecraft and launching it. Engineers discovered they had just enough propellant and life left in Stardust to send it on an exciting mission to comet Tempel 1.

Tempel 1 had been visited before. In 2005, the space probe Deep Impact flew through the comet dust cloud and crashed an impactor into its surface, blasting out more dust particles which could be analyzed by instruments. With Stardust, explorers could revisit the comet and examine the surface details for changes that occurred during the 5 year gap. Stardust was renamed Stardust-Next, and sent off on its second voyage of exploration.

Artist image of the approach to Tempel 1. Yes, a bit dramatic. Who cares? Very nice.

Scientists are a fairly reserved group of people when it comes to showing their emotions, and mission controllers are even more cool under pressure. But you could sense the excitement growing as the spacecraft reached closest approach. There were a couple of tense moments waiting to see if the spacecraft would encounter any problems transmitting data but all went as planned. One exciting moment occurred when it was discovered that the spacecraft had taken a hit from a tiny piece of the comet, enough to need a slight adjustment in thruster control. Thankfully not damaging enough to end the mission.

The big question now is whether the Deep Impact crater will have been visible and sunlit during the photo-fly-by, and if the images will capture data showing change on the surface. The pictures are all being downloaded today, and soon we'll have some magnificent images to see. Until then, here's one of the first pictures from the approach. All images are NASA/JPL and associates.

1,530 miles and closing...

Friday, February 4, 2011

Shuttle Happenings

Discovery rolls out to the launch pad.

Overnight on January 31st and February 1st, the shuttle Discovery was finally rolled out on the enormous crawlers to set up on Pad 39A. NASA has planned for a launch on February 24th at about 2:50 pm Mountain time. Discovery's STS133 was delayed for a couple of month in order to repair stress cracks discovered in the External Tank which is filled with liquid Hydrogen during liftoff. STS133 is planned to bring supplies to the ISS and help perform repair and maintenance tasks. There are two more shuttle missions planned after this one.

Astronaut Tim Kopra, a mission specialist on STS133, suffered an injury while bicycling. He will be replaced on this mission by astronaut Steve Bowen. This is an unusual situation because Bowen had just recently flown on the last shuttle mission, and according to NASA this makes him the first astronaut to fly on consecutive space missions. Who'd have thought?

STS134 is scheduled to fly in April. The commander of that mission, Mark Kelly, is husband of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who was tragically shot in Arizona recently. Her head wound has made remarkable healing progress, and it appears Commander Kelly will continue to command the shuttle mission.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Space Station Happenings

Japan's H-2 rocket prepares for Launch

My busy schedule doesn't always leave me room for blogging, and a lot of space activity has been going on recently that catches my interest. On the ISS front, besides a spacewalk by Russian cosmonauts to make some maintenance repairs, there has been a vitual salvo of rocket shots aimed at the station. Japan made a successful launch of the H-2 rocket and sent its new cargo pod to the ISS.

HTV-2 docks at ISS.

The cargo pod, designated HTV-2 (Heavy Transfer Vehicle 2) reached orbit and a couple days later rendezvoused with the ISS. Using the robotic arm, the astronauts captured the pod and attached it to the docking port.

Canadarm grabs the drifting HTV-2.

Commander Kelly opening the hatch to HTV-2.

With the ending of the Space Shuttle program, the ISS will depend on regular shipments of supplies by using these automated robotic spacecraft. But Japan was not the only cargo shipper lately. Russia also launched another Progress vehicle which just arrived at the station.

Progress on the launch pad in Kazakhstan.

The Progress 41 cargo ship was carrying extra propellant, oxygen, water, and a ton and a half of parts and food. Russia has developed a very successful robotic resupply program with the Progress series. Russia also keeps one or two Soyuz capsules docked to the station for use by the astronauts and cosmonauts. Again, with the demise of the shuttle program, the Soyuz capsules are the only access for people to and from the ISS until the USA develops something new.

ESA's ATV "Jules Verne" approaching ISS.

The third cargo ship used to transfer supplies to ISS is the European Space Agency's ATV. The ATV is the largest of the cargo pods and carries about 22 tons. The first ATV was named "Jules Verne." The next one to launch is named "Johannes Kepler" and is scheduled to launch on February 15th this year.

America is also in on the cargo ship game. Just a month ago, Space X launched its very successful Falcon 9 rocket with the first Dragon cargo capsule. Unlike the other three cargo pods, instead of burning up in the atmosphere after their mission is finished, Dragon returns safely to the Earth for refurbishment and reuse. Space X plans to develop a human-rated version of the Dragon in the near future. It may even be completed before NASA is able to design a replacement for the shuttle!

On January 21st, Russian cosmonauts Kondratyev and Skripochka made a 5-hour spacewalk to retreive some experiments and install communications equipment.