Monday, April 29, 2013

Recent ISS activities

Progress Rocket on the way to the ISS.

Living in space continues to be a busy activity for the Expedition 35 crew on board the International Space Station. Let's take a look at the goings-on of Earth's premium real estate.

ATV-4 in the preparation building.

The European Space Agency has announced the upcoming launch of the next ATV supply mission to the ISS. ATV-4, named Albert Einstein after the famous physicist, is expected to lift off for the station on June 5th this year. The ATV is the 4th to be built in the series, and completed its fueling on April 16th. You can read more about it's mission at SpaceRef:

Cosmonaut Vinogradov as seen by cosmonaut Romanenko's helmet cam.

On April 19, tow  cosmonauts of the Expedition 35 crew ventured outside for a chance to set up an experiment and do some maintenance on the station's exterior. Flight Engineers Roman Romanenko and Pavel Vinogradov installed an experiment that studies plasma waves and space weather, then repaired a navigation antenna that will be needed for the upcoming ATV-4 mission. They then retrieved an experiment and some experiment samples to bring inside the station. More on the spacewalk at:

Astronaut Marshburn experiments with two SPHERES robots.

Experiments and daily maintenance continues on the station. At any given time on the ISS, astronauts are performing medical studies on their own bodies (Yikes!) repairing or doing regular maintenance on station life support and experiment equipment, and working on the myriad numbers of experiments aboard ship. I've been fascinated with the experiments being performed with the SPHERES little robots, to ball-shaped remotely-operated "servants" (we should just call them droids and be done with it!). The NASA experiment SCan (Space Communications and Navigation) tests have begun. This is a laboratory setup that is experimenting with new methods of controlling radio, navigation, and networking solutions by controlling software changes. You can keep up with the goings on at ISS science at

Progress 51 (M-19M) on the pad at Baikonur.

Earlier this month, the crew undocked the older Progress cargo ship (now loaded with station trash and expendables) and Russian ground controllers de-orbited the craft, allowing it to burn up in the atmosphere. Then, on April 24th, the next Progress space rocket blasted off from Baikonur for the station. Designated M-19M or Progress 51, the spacecraft lifted off well but suffered a glitch when one of the navigational antennas malfunctioned. However, Russian mission controllers were able to work around the problem and successfully docked the supply ship on April 26th.

View from ISS of the Progress craft approaching.

Progress 51 brings 3.1 tons of cargo for the Expedition 35 crew, including equipment and life support supplies. The Progress series of supply spacecraft have been one of Russia's outstanding contributions to the ISS project, regularly contributing important cargo to the crews. However, their supply capacity seems smaller now compared to the larger craft such as Dragon which can bring almost 7 tons of supplies. Still, we could not have done the ISS program without such regular life support supply missions.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

50 Years Ago: President Kennedy Defends Space Budget

President Kennedy awarding NASA Administrator James Webb.

I almost missed this item from yesterday's look at the NASA archives. On April 24, 1963, President John F. Kennedy  participated in a press conference where he was asked if he "had any cause to reconsider" his commitment to goals to US lunar program. I think his answer is was not only important for his day during the development of the Apollo and Gemini programs, but it also applies to the importance of our space program today. Let's look at his profound answer:

"We looked at it, of course, when we proposed our budget for this year. We are looking at it again in relationship to next year's budget. We are also looking at it because of the concern that has been raised in the Congress and out of the Congress. I have seen nothing, however, that has changed my mind about the desirability of our continuing this program.

"Now, some people say that we should take the money we are putting into space and put it into housing or education. We sent up a very extensive educational program. My judgement is that what would happen would be that they would cut the space program and you would not get additional funds for education. We have enough resources, in my opinion, to do what needs to be done in the field, for example, of education, and to do what needs to be done in space.

"Now this program passed almost unanimously a year ago. What will happen, I predict, will be a desire, perhaps, possibly, to cut it substantially, and then, a year from now or six months from now, when the Soviet Union has made another new, dramatic breakthrough, there will be a feeling of, 'Why didn't we do more?' I think our program is soundly based. I strongly support it. I think it would be a mistake to cut it. I think time will prove, even though we can't see all the answers which we will find in space, that the overall expenditures have been worthwhile. This country is a country of great resources. This program in many ways is going to stimulate science. I know that there is a feeling that the scientists should be working on some other matter, but I think that this program – I am for it and I think it would be a mistake to arrest it."

It certainly looks like President Kennedy understood Congress.  Let's examine a couple of Kennedy's points. First: Cutting Space Program money to spend more on education and housing. History shows, that after Kennedy's assassination and President Johnson's extremely expensive "war on poverty" and enormous increases in education, Congress cut the space program drastically. For a period of 6 years, we were unable to send astronauts up into space (does that sound familiar?) And did the increases in spending achieve their goal. The result is a giant NO. Poverty levels have increased since then, and America places worse in educational results than we did in 1963. We can easily see through history that Congress is terrible at budgets and cannot control its spending habits. On the other hand, we can easily see that the spending in the space programs were of enormous benefit to the country, and the world, in the spinoff technological developments that went from exploring space and into the private sector. Few government programs have the spinoff benefit record that NASA has. SOmething we should consider today.

Second: Kennedy foresaw that other countries, in this case the Soviet Union, sought to beat the US in technological leadership, and that eventually something would happen and we would regret giving up our leadership in space. The same holds true for today. Although the Soviet Union is no more, Russia under Putin is determined to eventually replace us as the world leader in space technology. China seeks to do the same, AND is also involved in advancing techniques to destroy their opponent's satellites in space. 

Third: Kennedy believed that the space program would stimulate science. We certainly saw that with the Space Race. The drawdown from the space program of the last decade also takes lace during a time of a loss of industry and technological advances. We hear our leaders talk about a famine of American science students in our industry. Foreign students learn in our universities and then take that knowledge back to their countries, instead of immigrating to America. There is a push now for STEM and more science education. Well if you want that area to grow, we need to have some space heroes, some space adventures, and some great discoveries. As much as I believe in the importance of the science programs in the ISS, I think we have reached the point where it is up to private industry to make the leap from government support to finding wealth in space. We need to have a gold rush in space.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Antares Rocket Success!

NASA TV view of Antares leaving Wallops Island, VA.

Orbital Science has done it again. Creators of the Pegasus air-launched satellite rocket, the Minotaur rocket which re-uses former nuclear missiles, OS has now added the Antares satellite booster to their company's stable of privately-owned space systems. Yesterday at 3:00 pm MDT, the Antares lifted off from launch pad 0A to begin a 20-minute mission to reach orbit with a dummy payload (also known as a mass simulator).

Computer art of the Antares rocket.

NASA TV's coverage of the event was well done, including voice and video communications from the facility at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) and mission control, computer graphics of spacecraft orientation when out of camera range, and great on-board video of the liftoff and separation of booster components. The only glitch occurred as they forgot to get a wide-view of the liftoff itself, focusing completely on the upper stage of the rocket. Thankfully, NASA photographers managed to get the missing shot:

Liftoff from pad 0A at MARS.

The Antares becomes the second privately-owned rocket to meet a successful launch in NASA's COTS program (Commercial Orbited Transportation Services program) designed to contract out resupply services to the International Space Station. Until SpaceX and it's Dragon supply craft delivered supplies recently, the effort was done by expensive government rocket programs from the US (Space Shuttle), the Russians (Progress rockets), the Europeans (ATV), and the Japanese (HTV). 

Antares before launch on pad 0A at MARS.

The Antares lifted off perfectly on time. The mission had been plagued lately with a few glitches and weather-related delays during the last week, but Sunday's launch went off without a problem. On board cameras gave great views of the main engine cut-off, the stage separations, and the release of the fairings protecting the simulated payload. Once the payload was released after reaching orbit, the payload service module used thrusters to maneuver itself out of the way, thus completed the mission's test objectives.

Rocket view during launch. Great view of the Atlantic coastline.

Rocket view of stage separation.

Camera view inside the payload fairing before fairing release.

The moment of fairing release. Great camera footage during the flight.

Second stage firing.

Tactical view of payload separation.

The next test mission for OS and the Antares rocket later this summer will replace the dummy payload with the first test version of the Cygnus supply craft. Similar to SpaceX's Dragon and other international cargo ships, the Cygnus is designed to approach the ISS and be grappled by the station's robotic arm, then directed to a space hatch at one of the docking nodes.

Celebrations in mission control.

2013 will be a year that witnesses TWO companies using private commercial services to resupply the ISS. We'll also be looking forward to more testing of the Boeing CST-100 space capsule, which will eventually take astronauts to the ISS. With the addition of Virgin Galactic's suborbital tourism program, this will be a year long remembered for the privatization of space transportation systems.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Incoming Solar Storm

A mass ejection of matter from the Sun is caught exploding outward. SOHO satellite image.

Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) are not uncommon, but they don't always hit the Earth when they do. On April 11th the SOHO satellite (Solar and Heliospheric Observatory) imaged an eruption of the year's strongest solar flare to date, which was soon accompanied by a CME. The CME is a gigantic mass of charged solar particles that can play havoc with our satellites, electrical grids, and people high in the atmosphere or in orbit. This CME is expected to hit the Earth sometime this weekend on the 13th. One benefit of these eruptions is that when the particles hit the Earth's magnetic field, they can result in magnificent Northern Lights displays. Of course here in Utah we have storms this weekend.

Today's solar disk. Sunspot group AR1719 is just above center to the right. Credit: SDO/HMI.

The flare and CME were sent out from sunspot AR1719. The Sun's activity has been a bit unusual of late, as it is approaching Solar Maximum in it's 11-year cycle, and the sunspot activity has been low. Some scientists believe we may experience a cycle with two peaks. You can read more about the irregularities of the current solar cycle at NASA Science News:
and keep updates on the CME alerts at

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Advances in Commercial Space

Antares rocket moves to the launch pad.

Some significant steps are being made in the effort for private companies (as in not government agencies like NASA) this week. Let's start with the imminent launch of the Antares rocket. While the attention lately has been on the obvious success of SpaceX and their Dragon capsule and Falcon rocket,  they'll soon have some competition. The Antares rocket is built by Orbital Sciences, the company which has made successful small satellite launches with the Pegasus winged rocket which is carried aloft by a large jetliner, then released and launched into low orbit. They also have made launches with the Minotaur, a small satellite delivery system based on surplus military missiles. Now, the company is pinning high hopes on the Antares, a larger rocket launched in conventional manner. 

Antares being lifted to upright position on the pad. Both Antares pics by NASA.

Unlike SpaceX's use of a pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida, the Orbital Science team has built their test launch facility at Wallops Island, Virginia on the Atlantic Coast. They are using Pad 0A, which is owned by the newly created Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority which has named their part of the Wallops Island facility, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport. Wallops Island is famous for its use  of launching sounding rockets and small satellites into the upper atmosphere and low orbit since the early 1960's. Now, OS plans to launch the Antares into low Earth Orbit in their bid to become the second company able to deliver supplies to the International Space Station. Eventually they want to launch satellites weighing up to six tons into Earth orbit. You can read all about the upcoming launch, scheduled for April 17-18, at SpaceFlight Now's website:


Artist creation of Boeing CST-100 capsule on Atlas V rocket. Credit: Boeing.

Hurray for Boeing! They have just recently completed the Preliminary Design Review for mating their CST-100 space capsule to the Atlas V rocket. The adapter ring will connect the wider bottom of the crew capsule's service module with the obviously narrower upper stage of the Atlas rocket.  Although just an artists view at the moment, the picture above looks so real we can easily foresee what we'll be looking at when the first test missions launch in 2017 (hopefully earlier). It's looking like Boeing may become the first commercial provider to launch not just cargo, but astronauts to the ISS. 

Spaceship 2 in a test glide releasing nitrogen gas. Credit: Virgin Galactic.

We're getting much closer to the power-up tests for the new winged spaceship that will haul paying customers into sub-orbital spaceflight. Virgin Galactic has been drop-gliding its new spacecraft recently, and recent tests have been fully fueled although the rocket motor was not ignited. Rumors say the test may come as early as this month.

You can read more about SpaceShip 2, and Boeing's progress at the website for Parabolic Arc:

Thursday, April 4, 2013

50 Years Ago: Testing the Apollo Capsule

Artist concept art of the Apollo CM in re-entry mode.

On April 4, 1963, NASA was busy smacking the test version of the Apollo command module into a water tank. Engineers had plenty of data on how the Mercury single-occupant capsule reacted upon splashdown, but the upcoming Gemini flights (2-person capsule) and Apollo missions (3-person capsule) would need lots of data to ensure the safety of the astronauts.

Model of CM atop the Service Module (SM).

There were two types of impact testing to be done. Of course, the first was a water landing test, as the planned return to Earth was expected to land astronauts in the ocean. Engineers also had to plan for a possible landing on the cold hard ground. The scenario considered that in case of a launch abort, the escape tower would pull the capsule from the service module (SM) and open the parachutes. because of unpredictable wind situations, the capsule could possibly drift back over the land and smack the crew into the ground.
The CM is released from the tower.
In both cases of ground and water impact tests,  picture above shows the testing procedure. High-speed cameras would film the capsule releasing from a tower (to simulate the drop velocity) against a backdrop of squares (not sure if they are painted or tiles). The squares help the engineers plot movement and impact speeds.

Recent: Orion capsule mockup in water test tank.
Recently, NASA has been developing the Orion capsule which will launch atop the giant SLS rocket (Space Launch System). The SLS is being designed as NASA's heavy-lift rocket to take heavy or large payloads into orbit or to send astronauts on missions farther from the Earth. NASA still performs drop tests to measure the durability of the craft and how well it will protect our space explorers.

In the picture above, Orion makes quite a splash. These days, motion sensors are placed on the surface points and interior structure to record stress of impact at all points. It's sort of like motion capture used by the film industry. BTW, Blogger's new method of inserting images leaves a bit to be desired. I just couldn't get the splash picture to center properly. Honestly, I tried. Grrrr.