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.

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