Wednesday, March 30, 2011

HTV2 Farewell

JAXA illustration of HTV2 burn up in atmosphere.

On Monday the crew of ISS detached the H-2 Transfer Vehicle (Japan) from its docking berth. Using the Robotic arm, the crew placed the robotic craft, nicknamed Kounotori 2, as far as it could reach from the station. After releasing the pod, the arm was retracted and mission controllers in Japan maneuvered the HTV2 away from the station.

Having fulfilled its job of bringing up needed supplies and more experiments for the station's Japanese Science module, the empty space in the craft has been filled with non-recyclable waste and other garbage. Now, mission control has sent the craft lower in orbit so that it will eventually burn up in the upper atmosphere. This event is scheduled to take place later this week.

According to, the crew of ISS folded several paper cranes and placed them in the pod as a show of respect for all those who were lost in the recent Japanese earthquake and tsunami.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

50 YA - Mercury-Redstone and Explorer X

Blast off from Cape Canaveral.

Fifty years ago on March 24th, NASA performed a successful test of the Mercury Capsule launched on top of the Redstone rocket. The capsule was a boiler-plate model; that is, a mock-up of the capsule with scientific measuring equipment on board. Problems that had been encountered during the launch of the chimpanzee Ham in January led Dr. Von Braun to design another test mission before he dared to place an astronaut on board. The rocket took off from Launch Complex 5 at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Remember that the Cape was not called Cape Kennedy yet.

Camera view from the capsule.

As a suborbital launch, the top altitude recorded was just over 113 miles up and it travelled about 300 miles downrange. The test launch confirmed that the changes made to the rocket after the previous flights were successful, and that NASA was nearly ready to launch an astronaut. The capsule did not separate from the rocket, and the rocket ended up in the Atlantic ocean, sinking to the bottom and detonating a Sofar bomb, used to send locating signals through the water to fix a location.

Mercury insignia.

Meanwhile, of course, the astronauts trained and prepared for their future flights. NASA continued to do tests on equipment, still holding off on confirming a launch date for the first manned flight. Outside of the Mercury program, of course, other space programs were under way.

Thor-Delta rocket combo on the pad.

On March 25th, 1961, Explorer X was launched from the Cape on board a Thor-Delta 3 stage rocket. The satellite was placed in a strange, elliptical orbit that reached out as far as 148,000 miles (more than halfway to the Moon!) and as close as 100 miles (VERY low orbit). On board was a special magnetometer and other instruments to study the boundary of Earth's magnetic field, and the particles and magnetic fields found there.

And of course, don't forget that the Soviets were very busy as well. On March 25th, they launched "Spacecraft 5" which contained a capsule inhabited by a little dog named "Lucky Star."

Friday, March 18, 2011

50 YA - Little Joe 5A Test Flight

Blast Off! Little Joe makes Big Smoke. Photo of an earlier launch.

Fifty years ago, things were really ramping up for launching our first astronaut into space. Every piece of equipment was being tested to discover whatever could possibly go wrong. The Little Joe program was designed to test aspects of the Mercury space capsule, which would take one astronaut on voyages into space. This test, conducted from Wallops Island on March 18th, 1961, was supposed to test the escape tower system.

Unfortunately, due to some faulty programming, the test was only of limited use. It reached a height of 7.7 miles and flew about 18 miles downrange over the Atlantic ocean. The Capsule used in the test was called a "Boiler-plate" because it was not fitted with the correct interior, although it did include test measuring equipment. Failure of the test occurred when the escape tower blasted away successfully, but failed to take the capsule with it! Recovery teams did eventually recover all pieces of the test capsule and tower. This failure led to another launch later.

For Space Fans, the capsule used in this test is on display at the Virginia Air and Space Center in Hampton, VA.

Little Joe 5A being assembled prior to launch.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Messenger: First to orbit Mercury

Artist impression of Messenger approaching the first planet.

A lot of space fans are watching NASA TV tonight as the Messenger space probe begins its orbital insertion of the planet Mercury. Until tonight, we have managed to send probes to make passes by the small rocky planet, but this is the first spacecraft designed to stay in orbit.

NASA TV has been live broadcasting, interviewing the project scientists and watching the spacecraft mission control as the main engine fired to slow the craft into its orbit. As each step in the procedure was completed successfully, there were bigger and bigger grins and applause. At this time the spacecraft should be in orbit, according to incoming telemetry. However, there will be a lot of checking and double-checking of information as it is downloaded from the High-gain antenna aimed towards Earth. Absolute confirmation will come late tonight.

Bumpy Ride Comes to an End

Wind drags Soyuz capsule after touchdown.

After a fiery reentry through Earth's atmosphere, the three space voyagers in the Soyuz Capsule touched down on Earth's snowy fields yesterday at 1:54 pm local time in Kazakhstan. Russian landings are a bit bumpy - they don't use water landings like the old Apollo missions. For security reasons, the old Soviets design their craft to return to the frozen steps of Eastern Russia (now Kazakhstan).

Evidently, it's not just space that's cold.

Just before the capsule hits the Earth, a final blast from thrusters slows the craft even more and then BUMP it hits the ground. Generally speaking, the voyagers remain in the capsule until the helicopters arrive with rescue personnel who assist them. Remember, these poor guys have been without gravity for many months and can use some help moving in the heavy Earth gravity.

The astronaut and cosmonauts arrived safely, and were soon flying back to Russian space center where they will be debriefed and then sent home to join their families.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Busy Times

Second launch for the X37B.

While the astronauts of STS133 were visiting the ISS, other events were happening as well. NASA launched the X37B, the Air Force's "Secret" mini-shuttle, on top of the Atlas V rocket.

X37B being serviced after last mission.

The X37B is unmanned but bears remarkable similarity to the space shuttle design. The Air Force is testing the shuttle's maneuverability in low Earth orbit. This craft has already proved it can change orbits and disappear from those who are tracking it from the Earth (amateurs, anyway). It can carry payloads like satellites and experiments, and can stay in space for months at a time.

Delta IV Heavy on the pad.

There was also a launch of the "other" launch vehicle NASA uses for lifting satellites into orbit. On the 12th of March, NASA lifted a "spy" satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office. The blast-off occurred during the evening from launch Complex 37. The satellite is classified, so we don't know much about it.

Endeavor on the way to Pad 39A.

On the 11th, NASA began the rollout of the shuttle Endeavor to launch Pad 39A. STS134 is scheduled to launch April 19th on Endeavor's last flight to the ISS.

Expedition 26 in small Soyuz capsule.

Expedition 26 on the ISS prepared for its completion. On Monday the 14th Commander Kelly gave command of the ISS to cosmonaut Dimitry Kondratyev and the Soyua was boarded. In the NASA TV image above you see cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka, Commander Mark Kelly, and cosmonaut Alexander Kaleri through the open hatch into the Soyuz. The spacecraft undocked and began preparations for a landing on Wednesday.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

STS133: End of an Era for Discovery

Discovery Deploys Drogue chute.

After a journey of 5,304,140 miles and 202 orbits, shuttle Discovery finally touched down on the long runway at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. After deorbiting, it's flight path brought it over my home town of Sarasota. A quick call to my folks back there got them ready to try to spot it. Unfortunately, while the skies were clear over Kennedy on the east coast of the state, the west coast had quite a cover of small cumulus clouds which made spotting the shuttle near impossible. But the shuttle made its presence known anyway. My parents called back to let me know that the sonic boom was heard and it shook the windows.

On final approach, wheels down...

Commander Steve Lindsey and pilot Eric Boe brought Discovery in for a beautiful touchdown. These guys make it look so easy, but there are countless hours spent training in aircraft and simulators to make sure everything goes right. Eventually Discovery rolled to a stop. A commemorative plaque will be placed on the runway where the nose wheel finally came to a halt.

Infra-red image showing heat signatures.

It's cleanup time.

Discovery was immediately surrounded by a swarm of over 50 vehicles ready to collect the crew and service the orbiter. Only this time, Discovery will not be prepped for another mission. This was the shuttle's 39th, and final, mission. With the ending of the STS program, the shuttles will be cleaned up and prepared for storage in museums around the country. I think Discovery is set to be donated to the Smithsonian, which means the Enterprise, currently displayed in Washington DC, will probably go to another facility.

The next shuttle launch will be the Endeavor on mission STS134. The launch is scheduled for April 19, 2011. After that we may see the Atlantis launch for the last shuttle mission.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

STS133 Readies for Landing Today

Photo of Discovery from ISS. Last trip home.

With a successful mission behind them, the crew of STS133 prepares the orbiter Discovery for its landing today. They have taken the last inspection pictures of the re-entry tiles to verify all is well, and engineers have given them the all-clear. Eventually the pilot will close the cargo bay doors, which help to radiate heat into space. The commander will fire the orbiter's OMS engines, and begin braking the shuttle's tremendous speed. As the speed decreases, gravity begins to take over from velocity and the shuttle's altitude will lessen. Eventually the shuttle will encounter the atmosphere, and the air's mass will cause enough friction on the shuttle's underwing surface to heat up the tiles to about 1,500 degrees centigrade. Ouch. Do not touch. Actually the tiles cool more quickly than you think, so that soon after touchdown you could actually touch them safely.

Here's your wake-up call...

NASA performed another first early this morning. Usually, as the astronauts wake up from the night shift slumber, Mission Control plays a recorded musical piece selected either by astronauts or in this case, by the public. Today was the first time a Live Performance was used to greet the sleepy astronauts. The group Big Head Todd and the Monsters gladly arrived in the wee hours of the morning and prepared to give their first performance for outer space. Good job, guys, very cool!

Landing deorbit will begin at 8:52 am Mountain time and touchdown is scheduled for 9:57.

Monday, March 7, 2011

All Aboard! Shuttle undocks from ISS

Last crew pic of STS133 and ISS crews together.

The shuttle Discovery undocked at 5 am EST this morning and pulled away from the station at around 6:30. This was Discovery's last trip to the ISS and into space. It will be retired barring some unexpected act of Congress.

The crews were shaken from their slumber this morning with the playing of the "Theme from Star Trek" and personally narrated by WIlliam Shatner, the iconic actor who played Captain Kirk on the classic series as well as 6 of the movies.

The Discovery crew will perform safety checks including another robotic arm-camera inspection of the re-entry tiles. They are scheduled to land on Wednesday.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

STS133: Early end to spacewalk.

Upside down, up, or what? Doesn't matter in space.

The second spacewalk of STS133 has been completed. Astronauts Stephen Bowen and Alvin Drew managed to prepare a broken ammonia tank for later return to the surface, and keep the toxic ammonia spray away from the station and spacesuits. You don't want that stuff getting into your air supply.

Working on the Canadarm2.

The astronauts performed other tasks working to leave the station in great condition for the time when the shuttle doesn't return to the ISS. At the end though, one of the astronauts had a broken light fixture on his suit which prompted the early end of the spacewalk. Despite the strange end to the spacewalk, the objectives were completed and the mission goes on.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

More Space for Astronauts on ISS

Canadarm's grapple hooks onto the PMM in the Discovery cargo bay.

The Permanent Multipurpose Module was pulled from the Discovery on Tuesday. Using the magnificent Canadarm robotic arm, astronauts guided the module into its new home on the Unity Node of the ISS. It has been dubbed the "Leonardo" after its original name as a reusable cargo transfer module. With the shuttle program ending soon, there would be no further need for the module, and it was repurposed as an extra module for the ISS.

View from ISS. PMM in Discovery payload bay.

Inside the Leonardo, Robonaut 2 (R2) is awaiting unpacking and getting set to work. R2 is the first humanoid robot to be assigned to space life aboard the ISS and will assist astronauts in maintenance and other duties.

Clear view of PMM in the payload bay.

Docking the PMM to the Unity Node.

Fantastic view. Leonardo in place, Soyuz docked to the left, Discover to the right.

Leonardo was "christened" and officially open at 5:17, and Commander Kelly was the first to enter. They must be cheering in Italy today. After being built in Italy, the module made seven trips to the ISS and now permanently resides there.

A bit of bad news as well - permission was denied to undock a Soyuz for a photo fly-by of the ISS during this historic visit. Many people wanted to get a great picture of all the international spacecraft docked at the ISS during this mission. NASA officials- chill out! You need to do some fun stuff some times...