Friday, May 31, 2013

1998 QE2 Raises Asteroid Awareness

Asteroid 1998 QE2 with its small moon. Radar picture.

Ever since the smacking Russia got earlier this year, the world has been paying more and more attention to the passing of NEOs (Near Earth Objects). Congressional committees have been receiving briefings from NASA. News outlets and space blogs have been covering every passing rock. And NASA has received the goal from the President of traveling to an asteroid, and maybe diverting it to Earth Orbit to study it (anyone else think that may be a bad idea?).

Today at a minute before 3 pm MDT, asteroid 1998 QE2 will pass about 3.6 million miles from the Earth. In space distance terms, that IS close, but in reality, no need for any panicking or worrying. But what makes QE2 so interesting is that radar imaging has discovered that the big hunk of rock has its own orbiting satellite, or moon. The little dude is about 600 meters across, or about 2000 feet.

It's been very cool to see more people paying attention to one of the actual space dangers we could see in our lifetimes. NASA's budget for detection and tracking of NEOs has gone from about $6 million to just about $20 million in 2012. WHile some scientists think that they may have discovered up to 98% of the objects already, this year's collision with the Chelyabinsk asteroid proves that it's the ones you DON'T see that are the trouble-makers.

Malfunction... Malfunction...

Orbital debris surrounds the Earth. Credit: Google Earth.

Just a month ago, Ecuador launched its first satellite using a Chinese rocket. Now, it seems it has met with disaster. With help from the US-based Joint Operations Center, scientists have been able to piece together data, tracking, and timing to conclude that the small satellite has probably hit a tumbling, spent Soviet-era rocket booster. The JOC monitors all space orbiting objects and debris. With their fine attention to details, they help NASA plot safe trajectories and warn the ISS when a piece of debris is likely to pass into their safety zone.

Logo for the Ecuadorian satellite.

The Pegaso satellite was Ecuador's first and only satellite, and was a proud moment of achievement for the nation. It was a nano-satellite, cube-shaped weighing only 2.6 pounds. Its purpose was to take pictures from orbit and play the national anthem so radio operators could practice space communications. Not much of a satellite compared to the big advanced models usually launched, but for EXA, the Ecuadorian Space Agency, and the people of Ecuador, a proud achievement. Their scientists speculate that there may still be hope it can be contacted and stabilized, but they should no doubt be looking forward for their next mission.

GOES-13. Credit: Boeing.

Bad luck isn't just for Ecuador. It happens to American equipment, too. The weather satellite GOES-13, operated by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), has lost control of both of its main instruments. The satellite was tasked with providing weather coverage of the American East Coast. Fortunately, because of the importance of weather coverage, a "spare" or backup satellite had already been launched in 2006 and placed in "storage mode" just in case something like this happened. With the re-activation of the backup satellite, weather coverage is assured.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Expedition 36/37 crew reaches ISS

Soyuz rocket blasts off from Baikonur.

The Soyuz TNA-09m lifted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome at about 2:31 p.m. MDT yesterday, carrying a three-astronaut crew to the ISS. Soyuz commander Fyodor Yurchikhin, Flight engineers Karen Nyberg and Luca Parmitano make up the second half of the Expedition 36 ISS crew. The night time launch went well and placed the Soyuz capsule on a 6-hour quick path to the station. 

Cramped quarters inside the capsule.

This flight was the second use of the new shorter rendezvous course to the ISS. Good thing, since, as you can see from the screenshot above (thank you NASA TV), the occupants have to remain squeezed into an uncomfortable position while they travel to the docking port. You might notice the stuffed plush toys hanging from the console. This helps ground flight controllers watching on monitors understand when the crew reaches zero gravity. Perhaps it also brings good luck. In any case it brought a smile to many viewers!

Approaching Soyuz against the Earth's blue oceans.

The Soyuz reached the station in under six hours and began maneuvering for docking. The target docking port is located on the Russian Rassvet module.

Soyuz moves in closer to the docking port.

Docking occurred at 8:10 pm MDT. The craft had completed four orbits of the Earth before rendezvous. The crew could then secure their space suits and begin the procedures to equalize pressures in the Soyuz prior to opening the hatch.

Luca Parmitano makes it clear he's happy to be on board!

The station hatch opened at 12:14 a.m. MDT, and the crew was welcomed aboard by the first section of Expedition 36 station commander Pavel Vinogradov and FLight Engineers Chris Cassidy and Alexander Misurkin. Their section arrived at the station on March 28.

The complete Expedition 36 crew.

The complete crew will man the station until September, when the first section will return to Earth and cosmonaut Yurchikhin will become the Expedition 37 commander.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Expedition 36 relief crew prepares for launch

Expedition 36 Prime crew in front of Soyuz trainer.

Preparations continue at Baikonur for the Tuesday launch of Soyuz TMA-09M and the second half of the Expedition 36 crew. Commanding the Soyuz will be cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, and with him will be flight engineers Karen Nyberg and Luca Parmitarno.

Expedition 36 crew in Russian suits.

The Soyuz is expected to use the advanced orbital techniques to arrive at the ISS in only 6 hours, as opposed to the traditional 2 days previously taken. They are planning to dock the Soyuz to the Russian Rassvet module.

Expedition 36 backup crew on the left, prime crew on the right. From L to R: Koichi Wakata (Japan),   Mikhall Tyurin (Russia), Rick Mastracchio (NASA), Karen Nyberg (NASA), Fyodor Yurchikhin (Russia), and Luca Parmitano (ESA). The suit in the chair is part of the test fit procedures for suit testing for the astronauts.

Delta IV lifts WGS-5 to orbit

Delta IV launch from LC-47. ULA picture.

Wideband Global SATCOM-5 was sent into orbit Friday to become part of the US military's network of communications satellites giving worldwide networking communications to ships, planes, and groundfighters wherever they may be.

The United Launch Alliance is the spin-off company owned 50-50 by Boeing and Lockheed that provides launch services for the US government. That includes the military, NASA, and our spy agencies. Using the Launch Complex 37 pad at Cape Canaveral, ULA prepped and launched the Delta IV rocket at 6:27 pm MDT Friday May 24th. It was the 71st ULA launch in a 77-month period. It was the second launch for the government in 9 days, the last being a launch of an Atlas rocket (covered in the previous post). 

Great coverage of the flight at SpaceFlight Now:

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Rockets Red Glare

Atlas V launches from Pad LC-41.

Rocket fans live in a wonderful time of launches. On Wednesday May 15, United SPace ALliance launched an Atlas V rocket carrying the GPS 2F-4 satellite into orbit. The 31st part of the GPS system is safe in space. It's the 4th in a series of GPS satellites with entirely new upgrades and systems.  Of the course the marvelous Atlas V launch went fantastically well. You can see a whole gallery of photos from the launch thanks to SpaceFlight Now, at:

ESA's Vega rocket blasts off.

The European Space Agency launched the second successful flight of a Vega rocket from French Guiana on May 14th. The Vega is a lighter rocket than the famous Arianne V. This one easily placed three satellites in orbit to help with communications and science experiments.

Proton rocket lifts off from Kazakhstan.

International Launch Services (ILS) lifted the Eutelsat 3D communications satellite into orbit on May 15. Russian rocket observers are happy to see the 3rd successful flight of a Proton rocket since a failure in December. ILS is a company jointly owned by USA and Russian partners. They lease launch space from the Baikonur facility in Kazakhstan and use the Proton rocket for satellite delivery services.

If you are a rocket fan, you definitely want to watch all the great rocket news found at SpaceFlight Now:

There's an upcoming flight of a Delta 4 rocket scheduled for this Wednesday, due to blast off from Cape Canaveral. On board will be an Air Force Wideband Global SATCOM, built by Boeing and destined to support our military's communication network.

Payload for the Delta 4 on the move to assembly.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Danger! Asteroid and Solar Flares (not really)!

Orbital path of QE2.

I love the name of this asteroid: QE2. Asteroid 1998 QE2 is expected to fly by the Earth on the last day of May. The headlines read: "Huge Asteroid to Fly Past Earth this Month." Although you can tell we're not in danger from the title, its still sounds more ominous than the truth: "Large asteroid won't come near us." Of course that doesn't sound as cool. What IS cool, though, is that QE2 has a diameter of 9 times the length of the famous Queen Elizabeth 2 Ocean liner. SO it IS way bigger than, say, the rock that slammed into Russia this year. But, and this is a BIG BUT, it will fly past us about 3.6 million miles away. That's pretty distant for Near Earth Objects. AND... AND... scientists will get a GOOD look at its surface. SO that's pretty neat. And I love it that people are paying attention.

Solar Flare emitted from Sun today.

I also love it that the news guys are paying attention to Solar Weather! TOday, we are being side-swiped by a pretty large burst of Solar radiation and particles which erupted from the Sun on the 15th. Folks living north of latitude 40 degrees might get some cool Northern Lights. As for me, naw, it's raining here at the command bunker in Utah. But another flare erupted today, and this one is pointed right at us. As with all solar storms, the radiation and particles can play havoc with our satellites and astronauts high up in orbit, so here's hoping our shields (Earth's Magnetic Field) will do its job and protect us.

More on solar conditions at
More on QE2 at JPL:

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

50 YA: Faith 7 Orbits Earth for 34 Hours

Gordon Cooper official White Space Suit picture.

Fifty Years ago, the last of the Mercury Atlas missions stood on the launch pad at LC-14 at Cape Canaveral. So far, all of the Soviet Vostok missions had lasted for a day or more, so this flight was expected to help the USA catch up to the Russian space milestones. Mission MA-9 had been carefully prepared, and during the day before (May 14, 1963) the mission had to be scrubbed due to radar problems at the Bermuda tracking station and a diesel engine problem with the gantry on the pad. The flight would be attempted on May 15.

Astronaut Cooper walks out to the Van for the trip to the pad.

Cooper leaves the van at the base of the Gantry.

At the top of the tower. Faith 7 Mercury Capsule is prepped by technicians while Cooper inspects the outside of the craft.

Helped by the technicians, Cooper is carefully inserted into the capsule and the cramped cockpit.

May 14. Launch Scrubbed. Gantry will not retract. Flight rescheduled for the next day.

May 15. Gantry retracts. Countdown continues.

Mercury -Atlas 9, lifts off at 8:04 am EST. Rocket is Atlas booster 130-D and capsule is spacecraft #20.

View of EArth from Orbit.

Cooper enjoyed a successful launch, and was given a go for the first 7 orbits. Eventually he would make 22 orbits. The mission time was 34 hours and almost 20 minutes. During that time, Gordon worked on 11 experiments and took lots of pictures when he could not get to sleep. 

View of the Himalayas.

Slow-Scan TV image of astronaut in capsule. A first for NASA.

In the 19th orbit, things started to go wrong. He began to get false indicators lights on the control panel incorrectly indicating he was re-entering orbit, Then the Auto-pilot system failed. Cooper went to manual during the next orbits and re-entry. Carbon dioxide level was increasing. Even under the pressure of a malfunctioning capsule, Cooper kept his cool and expertly guided Faith 7 into re-entry and splashdown.

US Carrier USS Kearsarge and destroyer. 

There were more than 20 ships stationed around the world in case of an emergency re-entry and splashdown. However, Cooper made a near-perfect landing, the most accurate to date.

Faith 7 under parachute descends to the Pacific ocean near Midway Island, Hawaii.


Navy Frogmen secure the flotation collar and prepare for hookup to hoist. Cooper remained inside.

Faith 7 placed on an elevator on board the carrier.

Hatch open view of Cooper in the cramped cockpit.

Cooper is helped onto the deck of the ship. The last Mercury mission is over.

...and the inevitable parade.

NASA officials debated over the need for another mission, which would have been MA-10 and would be a three-day orbital attempt. However, it was decided to end the program and move on to the Gemini program, and prepare the nation for the eventual Moon flights.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

ISS Expedition 35 Ends, Returns to Earth

TMA-07M undocks and backs away from the ISS.

Expedition 35 has ended on a high note, and come to a successful conclusion. Days after the unplanned EVA to repair an ammonia leak in the station's cooling system for the electrical solar power, the crew of Expedition 35 turned over command to Expedition 36.

Commander Hadfield (right) bids adieu to the crew of Expedition 36 (on left).

Canada's first commander of the ISS, Kevin Chris Hadfield, had good words to say about the mission in the last three months during a televised Change of Command ceremony on Sunday. COmmand passed to cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov, part of Team B of Expedition 35, which now becomes the prime crew of Expedition 36. The departing Expedition 35 crew then made preparations for their return to Earth in Soyuz TMA-07M.

From inside ISS, Chris Hadfield in the hatch to the Soyuz waves goodbye.

There is not much room in a Soyuz capsule for three passengers, let alone equipment. However, some items need return right away, so the astronauts stowed aboard some samples from a Japanese protein crystal growth experiment.

Hatch closed.

The crew boarded their return spacecraft and undocking took place at 5:08 pm MDT while the station overflew Russia and Mongolia, over 250 miles up. As usual with Russian craft, NASA TV broadcast the sounds of Russian mission control with the help of a translator and the video coming from the Soyuz Point of View.

Russian computer panel with inset video, showing docking target on ISS.

The Soyuz fired thrusters to gently back away from the docking hatch on the Rassvet module. Once away from the station, further thruster firings maneuvered the craft away from the station and headed towards the re-entry position.

Soyuz POV. View of the station as the Soyuz moves back.

Last views of the ISS from TMA-07M.

After a perfect placement into position, the retro-rockets fired and the Soyuz began descending into the atmosphere. On the Soyuz craft, it's the middle section that protects the crew with an ablative heat shield, the experiment module and service module separating and burning up.

Computer art of module separation. Travel path would be to upper right.

Parachute sequence. The first 'chute pulls out the Main. The capsule fires landing rockets just before touchdown.

Landing occurred in Kazakhstan at 8:31 pm MDT last night. Helicopters and vehicles brought the Russian landing recovery teams to the site and they helped the astronauts leave their cramped capsule.
The crew had been in space about six months, so their bodies had to fight hard against the gravity.
With the end of recovery operations, attention now turns to the flight of Expedition 36.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Emergency Spacewalk Repairs ISS

Astronauts Marshburn and Cassidy  worked outside the ISS this morning.

Now see, when NASA needs to get something done, they just do it. This morning at 6:44 am MDT astronauts Tom Marshburn and Chris Cassidy opened the hatch to space and went for a little repair EVA on the outside of the station. During the 5 1/2 hour EVA, they removed a damaged coolant pump and replaced it with a spare that had been previously brought up to the station and temporarily placed nearby, ready for eventual use. The spacewalk, the 168th EVA in support of the maintenance and construction of the ISS, went quickly and successfully. It was a great example of close ground and orbital cooperation that went faster than we might have expected. Kudos to mission control, the engineers at Johnson Space Center and the resourceful astronauts of Expedition 35.

The commander of Expedition 35, Chris Hadfield, will turn over command of the station on Sunday to Expedition 36 commander Pavel Vinogradov at about 1:40 pm. MDT. Hadfield and his crew will prepare for a landing on Earth the next day.

Friday, May 10, 2013

ISS Suffers Ammonia Leak Again

ISS current module configuration.

Yesterday morning the crew of Expedition 35 discovered they had a problem. Communicating with Mission COntrol in Houston, the crew used hand-held cameras to try to broadcast down what they described as "small white flakes" floating away from the station. NASA reports the leak, apparently of ammonia, is coming from the station's P6 Truss segment. This is an area where astronauts had previously made spacewalks to repair a leak in the coolant system.   Now it appears there is still a problem.

Astronauts Sunni WIlliams and Aki Hoshide (Japan) on the November 2012 spacewalk to fix an ammonia leak.

Controllers on the ground were able to confirm there was a decrease in the ammonia supply in the coolant system. These coolant systems are important for the flow of electrical power from the giant solar power panels. For now, controllers and the crew are working to reroute the power channels away from the damaged system so that operations can continue as normal while a plan is considered for repairs.

While NASA reports there is no current danger to the life support systems, the engineers are giving a prediction that if the current leak continues, the affected coolant loop will have to be shut down in 48 hours.