Saturday, June 29, 2013

A Week of International Space Activity

Cosmonaut Yurchikhin outside the ISS.

It wasn't a week of ONLY International space activity, but I thought I'd post some of the goings-on by our ISS partners the Russian Space Agency and the conclusion of the Chinese Shenzhou 10 mission. On June 24, Expedition 36 flight engineers Fyodor Yurchikhin and Alexander Misurkin completed a successful six and one half hour spacewalk outside the ISS. The main reason for the EVA was to continue hookup preparations for a new Russian-built ISS Module, coming later this year, that will replace the PIRS module. That project will be the first renovation of the station since its completion at the end of the Space Shuttle program. 

Cosmonaut Misurkin works on the Zarya module.

During the spacewalk, the cosmonauts also retrieved some experiments that had been outside the station exposed to the vacuum of space, and did some preventative maintenance on the Zarya module cooling system. There are four more Russian spacewalks scheduled for 2013, and two spacewalks by Americans in July.

Outside the ISS.

During the spacewalk, the Expedition 36 crew continued on working with ISS equipment or were involved in supporting the EVA. Due to the layout of the Russian module segments and their hatch locations, astronaut Chris Cassidy and Commander cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov were required to remain in the Soyuz 08M craft attached to the Poisk module, while the other two astronauts were free to move about the American side of the station.

Soyuz 2-1b rocket on launch pad.

The Russians also had a busy launch schedule. On June 25, they launched a Soyuz 2-1b rocket from Baikonur and paced a remote-sensing satellite in orbit. Then on June 26, a Soyuz ST-b rocket lifted off from the European Space Agency launch site in French Guiana, carrying four satellites designed to expand broadband Internet communications to areas of the planet that currently have weak or no coverage.

Televised parachute opening of returning Shenzhou-10 capsule.

June 26 also saw the ending of China's Shenzhou-10 space station mission. Declaring a success, China's crew landed in Inner Mongolia safely and was returned to a cheering nation. China will now focus on building the technology for a new station and expanded series of ferry rockets for carrying crew and supplies.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

50 Years Ago: Tiros System keeps advancing

Duplicate of Tiros satellite used in public exhibitions across America.

It's worth remembering, so close to the beginning of the hurricane season, that we've only had weather satellites in orbit of Earth for a little over 50 years. On June 19, 1963, NASA launched TIROS 7, a 42 inch diameter, 270 pound marvel of 1960's technology. Liftoff was on a Thor-Able rocket from Launch Complex 17 at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Thor-Able rocket. Forerunner of the Delta family of rockets.

Tiros 7 continued the use of two camera systems to record cloud cover and track storms, but also borrowed from an Explorer 17 satellite to include new measurements on temperatures in space and infrared reflections of solar and terrestrial radiation. It would last the longest of the many Tiros satellites, until June of 1968. On its first orbit, its camera 2 detected a cloud vortex over Newfoundland and within an hour had pictures transmitted to ground engineers for analysis. 

Sunday, June 16, 2013

50 Years Ago: First Woman in Space!

Cosmonaut Valentina Tershkovova

Fifty years ago today, the Soviet Union took another leap forward in launching the first woman into space aboard Vostok 6. Valentina Tereshkova also became the first civilian to fly into space. She also saved her space mission!

Launch of Vostok 6 from Baikonur.

I've read in several accounts that the original mission goal was to have two women in space at the same time in Vostok 5 and 6, making a rendezvous, but that plan changed and instead Valery Bykovsky piloted the previous craft into orbit. Two days after that launch, Tereshkova lifted off in Vostok 6, and she made radio contact with Bykovsky after she reached orbit. Near the beginnings of the flight, Tereshkova made a discovery that there was an error in the descent program which would have caused the craft to ascend in orbit instead of descend. After she informed this to the Russian flight control, the engineers sent up correct instructions to Tereshkova, which she entered into the navigation program, thus saving her from problems during deorbit. This event was kept a secret until 2004.

Artist image of Vostok 6.

Keeping contact with Vostok 5 by radio, Tershkova flew within several miles of Bykovsky. Encyclopedia Astronautica has an interesting account by Tereshkova of what her mission was like, including an unfortunate event caused by eating food that was not very good:

Vostok 6 on the ground.

After re-entry, according to procedures, Tershkova ejected from the capsule and parachuted to the ground separate from the capsule chutes. They landed nearby each other, but she was stuck on her back in the ejection couch until rescuers reached her by plane and parachuted down to assist. 

Vostok 6 capsule on display.

Vostok 6 was the last mission using the Vostok 3KA spacecraft. The capsule is on display at the RKK Energia Museum in Korolyev.

Stamp and cover of mission.

Various stamps of the Joint Mission.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Two Dockings, Two Stations

Chinese Space Agency art of docking with Tiangong 1. Credit: Xinhua.

The Shenzhou 10 spacecraft completed docking with the Tiangong 1 space station on Thursday afternoon, Beijing time. Although the procedure was run automatically, Mission COntrol on the ground and Pilots in the spacecraft stood ready to intervene in case of malfunction. This success makes the second manned docking of spacecraft for China. China is the third nation after America and Russia to develop their space program to include rendezvous and docking two spaceships.

View from ISS of Progress 51 backing away from the station.

The docking at the International Space Station was a bit trickier. A busy place at normal times, when Europes largest spacecraft comes calling, you have to make room. A couple of Progress robotic space cargo ships were already docked at the ISS, so Progress 51 was released. The craft had been filled with garbage, waste, and unwanted items to make room for new supplies coming up. Originally, when Progress 51 blasted up into orbit, it had suffered a communications antenna failure and had to rely on backup systems. With the release from the station, engineers will have a few days to work with the system from mission control and try to resolve the problem from the ground. Then they will deorbit the craft to burn up over the ocean.

ATV-4 approaches the docking port. Lens flares provided by JJ Abrams : )

ATV-4, "Albert Einstein" is the 4th and heaviest spacecraft launched by the European Space Agency. it is carrying 5000+ pounds of cargo, hardware and supplies, plus 1200+ pounds of water and 200+ pounds of atmosphere. It has now docked at the end of the Russian Zvesda module. Once emptied of supplies, it will serve as more room for the astronauts and as storage space. WHen it is time to remove more waste and garbage, it will follow Progress 51 into a deorbit burn.

Currently, only the SpaceX Dragon Cargo ship is capable of returning experiments and valuable items to Earth for study.

50 Years Ago: Vostok 5 begins Joint MIssion

Cosmonaut Valery Bykovsky of Vostok 5.

On June 14, 1963 the Soviet Union launched Vostok 5 from Baikonur. This mission was a joint mission similar to Vostok 3 and 4, which made a close approach. Cosmonaut Valery Bykovsky in his spacecraft would attempt a close pass of Vostok 6 which would shortly launch.

Mission patch for Vostok 5 and Vostok 6.

As with the other Vostok missions, the cosmonaut was the single occupant of the spacecraft. The Vostok 5 mission was expected to last 8 days. The second spacecraft, Vostok 6 was scheduled for launch on June 16.

Model of a Vostok spacecraft. The spherical module separates from the service module for a parachute ride back into the Soviet Union.

Things did not go as planned for the mission.  Increased levels of solar activity presented a radiation danger for anyone staying up for a long time, and there was a problem with the waste collection machinery. No doubt Valery detected a new odor in space. However, being the professional pilot that he was, Valery maintained his flight duties and was finally recalled to return to Earth after 82 orbits. Although shorter than planned, to this day it remains the longest duration flight of a single occupant spacecraft, setting a record and putting America farther behind in the space race.

Valery Bykovsky.

For his mission, Bykovsky was awarded "Hero of the Soviet Union," Russia's highest honor. He would eventually reach the rank of Major General of the Soviet Air Force. He was later scheduled to fly on the Soyuz 2 mission. Remarkably, after the accident with Soyuz 1, the mission was postponed, and it was discovered that the craft had the same problem as the first one. If he had flown the Soyuz 2 mission before alterations, he would have perished.

Soviet cover with stamps commemorating the Vostok 5/6 missions.

Another stamp cover of the missions,

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Shenzhou 10 Launch Attempts China's Longest Mission Yet

Shenzhou 10 on Long March 2F rocket roars into a perfect sky. All images credit: CMSEC and Xinhua.

China has set herself on an ambitious schedule of missions. On this, only the fifth manned space mission, Chinese astronauts (sometimes called taikonauts) are attempting a 15-day mission to the Tiangong space module in orbit around the Earth. Unlike ISS, the Tiangong 1 is not permanently manned. It is being used as a temporary way station on a scheduled path for China to build their own space station by the year 2020. The first manned mission to Tiangong 1 was last year. Each mission brings China closer to their stated goals, eventually to reach the Moon.

Artist concept of docking Shenzhou10 (right) with Tiangong 1 (left). Notice the similarity between Shenzhou 10 and a Russian Soyuz space craft.

Overview of Soyuz spacecraft. Although the orbital module has a different shape than the Soyuz's, the Chinese craft was developed from the Russian design. Credit:

China has gone from first manned launch to second docking with a space station in just five missions. Their planning has been careful and ambitious. But it shows that countries entering the manned space age on their own no longer need to go through the long and difficult process of scientific progression on their own. America and Russia paid for that discovery during the last 50 years. China just showed other countries that you can buy the technology (as they did from Russia, although some advanced navigational technology was taken from American sources) and develop your own space program. Soon, once the US commercial companies like SpaceX and Boeing complete their own manned rockets to the ISS, a country will merely need to buy a complete rocket and capsule set. Currently, other countries will still need to develop their own space infrastructure (launch bases) of their own of use a previous existing one. However, I believe that we will soon see space construction companies contract out to build launch facilities for other countries.

Shenzhou 10 astronaut (l-r): Wang Yaping, Zhang Xiaoguang, and Nie Haisheng. 

The Shenzhou 10 mission improves upon the last visit to the station. In addition to bringing supplies, the crew will install a new waste processing facility (think about that- no doubt a welcome addition), the crew will enjoy a greater variety of food for their meals, and an educational lesson will be televised to the students of China. They will practice docking maneuvers, and generally set the stage for the next Chinese manned flight.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Shenzhou 10 prepares for mission to Tiangong 1

Gantry tower surrounds the Long March rocket. Credit: CMSE.

On Monday June 3, the Chinese Space Agency CMSE (China Manned Space Engineering) rolled out the Shenzhou 10 to the launch pad. The spacecraft sits atop a Long March 2F rocket and is planned to lift three Taikonauts into space sometime around June 9-11. So really, any time now.

Shenzhou 10 rollout. Credit: CMSE

This will be the second Chinese mission to the Tiangong 1 space station, currently orbiting the Earth. The last mission there, Shenzhou 9 in June 2012, took three spacefarers on a short visit to the station and included China's first woman astronaut, or Taikonaut as Chinese space travelers are designated. On that mission, Liu Yang and her fellow crewmembers stayed with the station for 10-11 days.

The Shenzhou 10 mission is expected to attempt a fly-around of the station, followed by a docking and a 12-day (I think) stay before coming back to Earth. According to, Chinese space agency leaders claim this will be the third in a series of tests for the Agency to master the art of placing a station in space and transferring crew members. The goal is for China to build a larger manned station by 2020.

You can find more about the mission at and watch for the launch news at

Friday, June 7, 2013

Another Asteroid Passes close to Earth

Asteroid orbit path comes close to Earth, left of center.

2013 continues to be the Year of the Asteroid Menace. Today a recently-discovered asteroid, 2013 LR6, will approach the Earth's orbit today and pass close by tomorrow. The 50 foot-wide rock will come closer than does the Moon, at about 68,000 miles (the Moon is at about 240,000 miles). That's close in NEO terms (Near Earth Objects). 

Yahoo News has a good article explaining more about this event and a link to watch the approach LIVE:

From the SpaceRubble Command Bunker: We often hear that scientists have discovered such-and-such percent of the asteroids that could hit us. Yet rocks such as this one, the recent big one and the Chelyabinsk meteor hit prove that it's the ones you don't see coming that are the true danger to the Earth. And if they aren't seeing all of them, then we really don't have a number we can pin a percentage on, we only have a Wild-a** guess to go on, 'cause who in the heck knows everything that's out there in space!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Einstein goes to the ISS

Arianne 5 launches from French Guiana. Credit ESA and BBC.

The European Space Agency (ESA) launched their 4th large cargo spacecraft to the ISS yesterday. The Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV-4), named after the famous physicist Albert Einstein, blasted off from the Kourou space launch facility in French Guiana carrying supplies for the International space station.  This particular mission is the heaviest that has been launched by the ESA, weighing in at 20+ tons of craft and supplies. The spacecraft will maneuver into a matching orbit with the ISS over the next 10 days, expecting to dock on Saturday June 15. It will remain attached until october, when it will be deorbited with garbage  from the station to burn up in the atmosphere.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

50 Years Ago: Rocket Tragedies and Triumphs

Titan II on Launch Pad, Cape Canaveral.

Fifty Years ago, the US Air Force and NASA Engineers were continuing to test and modify a multitude of rockets and ICBMS (InterContinental Ballistic Missiles). The Titan series were being modified to carry astronauts in NASA's Gemini program, soon to start now that the Mercury Program had come to a conclusion. On May 29th, 1963, a Titan II rocket was launched from Launch Complex 15 at Cape Canaveral. It was the 16th launch from LC-15. Nine flights had been mostly successful, yet six had encountered problems or come up short in meeting the mission goals. The last Titan launch had been the 1,400th rocket launched from the Cape, on May 21 (may have been May 24th) which successfully placed its test payload more than 6,500 miles down the AMR (Atlantic Missile Range).

Not so successful.

Fifty seconds into the flight, fuel began to leak into the engine compartment and started a fire. The rocket lost control at at 55 seconds of flight, it blew up spectacularly.

Rocket garden at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama.

Also on May 29, a target payload previously launched by a Titan I missile began to re-enter the atmosphere. Waiting for it was a Nike-Zeus rocket, fired from the Kwajalein Island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The rocket warhead successfully intercepted the target coming down. This shows that even this early in rocket development, the US was able to see hope in the idea of defense against nuclear missiles. It would be politics that would shut that effort down eventually, only to see it be resurrected  later by Presidents Reagan and Bush (43).

Minuteman I on display.

Tests also continued on the Minuteman ICBMs, which used a solid rocket fuel motor. May 29th was a busy day, as a Minuteman took off from either LC31 or LC32 and placed its payload 4,000 miles down the AMR. This was the last launch of the Minuteman tests by Boeing personnel, future launches would be by the Air Force.

Minuteman II in flight.

Minuteman I on pad LC-31/32.

Minuteman family of vehicles.

On June 5, A minuteman II was launched over the Atlantic, successfully placing its payload all the way out near Ascension Island. On the other coast, an Atlas E rocket lifted off from Vandenberg AFB the day before.

Polaris missile on pad 29 at Cape Canaveral.

It wasn't just NASA and the Air Force launching rockets. The Navy was in on it, too. On June 6th, the Navy sent up a Polaris A-3 rocket from launch Complex 29. The Polaris system was designed for launch from nuclear-powered submarines.

Polaris family of rockets.