Friday, March 29, 2013

Soyuz docks with ISS

Blastoff from Baikonur. Credit: NASA TV.

Three more crew for Expedition 35 took off from Baikonur yesterday at about 2:35 p.m. MDT. They will form the second half of the crew for the next 3 months, then become the prime crew for Expedition 36. This flight marks an important milestone in the history of rocket transfers to the ISS: it is the first "express" mission to fly people to the station. The traditional plan for Russian rockets is to take a two-day flight to rendezvous with ISS and then dock. This mission used advanced trajectory planning to arrive at the station and dock approximately six hours after blastoff.

Inside the cramped Soyuz capsule. Off to the left, out of frame, is a third cosmonaut.

The benefit for this flight profile, of course, is that the occupants of the Soyuz TMA-08M will not need to spend 40+ hours in the cramped Russian capsule. The downer for this flight though, is that the crew will not have had rest or sleep for more than 20 hours.

After the docking, the crew assembles for a press briefing.

The first half of the Expedition 35 crew has been in space now since just before Christmas. Hadfield, Marshburn, and Romanenko will leave it May. They are joined now by the second half of their crew: Cassidy, Vinagradov, and Misurkin. The new crew will remain on the station until September.

View of the Soyuz TMA_08M from the ISS as the two craft prepared for docking.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

50 Years Ago: Dyna-Soar gets more Funding

Artist concept art for Dyna-Soar X-20.

Fifty years ago on March 26, 1963, the Senate awarded over $358,000,000 to continue development costs for the Air Force's revolutionary winged spacecraft design. The X-20 Dyna-Soar had been awarded initially to Boeing, and the new money was expected to cover costs for future drop tests from a B-52 mother plane, and the first orbital flight from Cape Canaveral. The initial flight was expected to occur in 1965.

Aerobee sounding Rocket at White Sands Museum.

On March 27, 1963, scientists launched an Aerobee 150 sounding rocket high into the upper atmosphere from the White Sands proving grounds in New Mexico. Although I don't cover all the sounding rocket launches, and military rocket tests, these texts and experiments continued unabated through the early 1960's.  This particular Aerobee launch included experiments studying the radiation detected at high altitudes.

Dragon Supply Ship Returns to Earth

Dragon capsule released by robotic arm from ISS.

Early on Tuesday morning, astronauts of Expedition 35 on the International Space Station undocked the Dragon capsule from the station and moved it away using the robotic arm. After letting the capsule gently thrust away from the station, ground engineers at SpaceX guided the craft into a deorbit pattern.  A few hours after that the craft carefully re-entered the atmosphere to a safe parachute landing in the Pacific Ocean near Baja California. It's landing was spotted and the recovery ship made a successful retrieval a short time later. 

Robotic arm holding on to Dragon, partially in shadow.

This is the second successful mission for SpaceX and its Dragon unmanned resupply spacecraft. It is the second mission of a planned dozen that SpaceX has in its contract with NASA. ANother mission is expected later this year. Unlike the Japanese, European, and Russian resupply craft, Dragon can bring back important experiments and samples. One of the items included in the 1200+ kilograms of items in Dragon's cargo included a set of Lego's which had been used in an experiment on the station.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Expedition 35 Second Crew Readies for Flight

TMA-08M in preparation.

Currently, Expedition 35 only consists of three astronauts floating high above in the International Space Station. It's commanded by Chris Hadfield, first Canadian astronaut to be in charge of the ISS, and cosmonaut Roman Romanenko and astronaut Tom Marshburn.

Soyuz spacecraft on its side, in preparation. Nearby personnel give a good view of the size. The actual capsule that contains the cosmonauts is in the middle. The ball-shaped front portion to the lower right is a supply and science module that does not return to Earth.

The Soyuz spacecraft is slowly inserted into the third stage fairing.

This week the second half of the Expedition 35 crew will join their teammates in space. The new trio will launch from Baikonur Cosmodrome on Thursday March 28 at about 2:43 p.m. MDT. Watch on NASA TV.

Soyuz third stage attached to the rocket.

TMA-08M Prime crew (sitting) and Backup Crew (standing).

In the picture above, this week's mission crews are flight crew (front, left to right) astronaut Chris Cassiday, Soyuz Commander cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov, and Flight Engineer Alexander Misurkin; backup crew (back, left to right) astronaut Michael Hopkins, and cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

New Eyes in the Skies

Beautiful liftoff of the Atlas-5 rocket from Cape Canaveral. Picture from

The Atlas-5 is the Energizer Bunny of rockets. This launch yesterday from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral marks the 4th launch in just 4 months of this class of booster. The next launch will be in May, marking 5 launches in just 6 months. Also, the Atlas-5 series seems to be remarkably free from major malfunctions. Each of the last 4 launches went off during their first opening of the launch windows.

Yesterday's launch placed a new SBIRS GOES2 spy satellite into orbit, This satellites main purpose is to alert the US military of any military missile launches. Considering the continuing missile advancements of Iran and North Korea, it's only common sense to keep a VERY close eye on these belligerent countries which continue to breathe out threatenings of destruction for the United States and Israel.

Great article on the satellite and the Atlas-5 rocket at Spaceflight Now:

Monday, March 18, 2013

ISS: Expedition 34 Ends, Lands on Earth

Change of Command: Hadfield (L) becomes first Canadian Commander of ISS.

Big changes on the International Space Station this last week. On Thursday, March 14, during a change of command ceremony, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield took command from NASA astronaut Kevin Ford. Hadfield came onto the ISS with the second half of Expedition 34 in December. That crew now begins Expedition 35. 

Dragon resupply craft captured by ISS robotic arm.

The change occurs just 11 days after the arrival of a second Dragon resupply craft arrived at the station. This is the second successful mission for SpaceX's Dragon robotic resupply ship. Despite a thruster glitch on the liftoff to orbit, the engineers were able to execute maneuvers to unfreeze a stuck thruster and coax the craft to a perfect rendezvous.

Yay! Fresh Food!

The last few weeks of Expedition 34 saw astronauts completing several experiments and continuing the  never-ending maintenance of the ISS. With the docking of Dragon, fresh supplies were moved onto the station, and no doubt there were smiling faces as fresh fruit and food was transfered. The crew now begins loading the Dragon with experiment results and equipment that will be needed for analysis back on Earth. so far, Dragon is the only spacecraft capable of bringing back equipment from the ISS. There's just no room in the Russian Soyuz spacecraft other than for 3 occupants. In that regard, Dragon has a huge competitive advantage over the Japanese, Russian, and European space cargo craft, which burn up upon re-entry.

Commander Ford of Expedition 34 working with SPHERES in the ISS.

One of the more interesting experiments aboard the ISS is work with the robotic helpers. You've seen R2, the humanoid-shaped (at least upper torso) remotely-operated robot. Well, you should also meet SPHERES, which stands for Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites. These are basketball-sized polyhedron-shaped little robots! Each one has its own set of mini-cameras, microphones, speakers, radios, gyroscopes, and thrusters that should enable the little ball-shaped droids to free-fly around the station and act as little helpers for the astronauts. Eventually these could be sent outside the station as a robotic inspector to check damaged parts or materials conditions. They give ground controllers an extra eye-ear-and-mouth set on the station. They definitely remind me of the little Seeker droids from the Star Wars movies. Not sure we should arm them with lasers, though.

Closing the hatch to the Soyuz.

Change comes on a regular schedule in the ISS, and so the crew of Expedition 34 boarded the Soyuz TMA-06M craft after the change of command. There was a delay however, as there were bad weather conditions at the expected landing site in Kazakhstan. Finally, the Soyuz was able to undock and deorbit on Friday the 15th. After landing safely, the rescue helicopters and support crew arrived at the capsule and helped the crew to exit the craft and begin adjusting to gravity once again.

Expedition 34 safely back on Earth.

Friday, March 8, 2013

More Incoming Rocks & Snowballs

Asteroid at Center marked by cross hairs. Credit G. Masi and F. Nocentini.

Here comes another one! No need to fear though, they come and go all the time. This weekend it's visitor asteroid 2013 ET, passing us at about 380,000+ miles. It was only discovered on March 3 (picture above taken March 7). This brings up a good point about how important it is for our space programs to develop a better method for identifying these hurtling Earth-crashers far earlier, and having a defense ready to divert them or something. 2013 ET is set to pass by Saturday afternoon and is about the width of a football field. Bigger than the one that recently exploded above Russia. You can participate on a video webcast covering the passage. Check out's article here:

Comet PANSTARRS as seen from Australia (NASA image)

Finally, we get to see a fairly visible comet! It's been a while. This one is comet PANSTARRS (2011 L4) which was discovered in 2011. It has recently become visible to the naked eye, and has just started to cross the hemispheric view into the northern hemisphere, so we can try spotting it from Utah (barring this drastic winter weather). Here's the link to NASA's page on viewing PANSTARRS:

Happy viewing!