Monday, July 29, 2013

Recent Rocket launches place satellites in orbit

Ariane 5 lifts off from French Guiana. Credit: Arianespace

There's been a salvo of international space launches since the NASA spacewalk emergency. As far as satellite launches go, the most recent was Thursday's (July 25) launch of an Ariane 5 rocket by the European Space Agency. Lifting off from the site in French Guiana, the rocket placed the 6 and a half ton Alphasat 1-XL satellite into orbit. The Alphasat is a new and larger satellite chassis that will allow ESA to place larger and more powerful communications satellites into space. Along for the ride, was smaller satellite INSAT-3D, a weather satellite for India.

There goes another Atlas 5, from Cape Canaveral AFS. Credit: John Studwell/AmericaSpace.

The Atlas 5 just keeps on going... Saturday July 20 saw the venerable rocket liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Florida with the Navy's MUOS-2 communications satellite. The launch occurred from Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) after a slight upper winds delay. This was number 2 of a planned series of 5 MUOS satellites. The United Launch Alliance (ULA), which operated the launch for the military, claimed that this was the heaviest satellite taken up by the Atlas 5 so far. ULA has another rocket launch coming up in 3 weeks.

Blastoff of the Long March 4C from Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center. Credit: Xinhua.

China is always busy launching satellites these days. On Saturday July 20, A long MArch 4C rocket carried 3 satellites into space, testing technology for maintenance in space and other experiments. On Monday July 15 a Long March 2C had blasted off, this time from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, and carried a satellite that included scientific, and possibly military, experiments.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Parmitano OK after Dangerous EVA

Eurospace AGency Astronaut Luca Parmitano in airlock waiting for emergency repressurization procedures to conclude. By this point he could not see or hear because blobs of water had covered his eyes and entered his ears, and some was getting into his nose.

You can just imagine the frustration astronaut Parmitano must have felt waiting to get out of that suit. Water was going into the wrong holes... and not a thing he could do except remain very calm. In his debriefing he said that before he could get back to the airlock, his eyes were blinded by the water (NOT drinking water, but probably coolant water) and he had to find his way to the airlock by memory, with help from fellow EVA astronaut Chris Cassidy. He estimates there was nearly 3 pounds of water in the helmet by the time it was removed, which is about a half-gallon! He definitely showed the stuff astronauts are made of. He could have choked and possibly drowned before getting the helmet off.  More details in this article:

Meanwhile, in Mission Control... Flight Directors David Korth (L) and Norm Knight (R) discuss the dangerous situation and the best way to get Parmitano into the airlock and safety.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Spacewalk Ends Early Due to Suit Malfunction

Luca Parmitano on EVA July 9.

Today's ISS Spacewalk ended early when the unexpected malfunction occurred: liquid water began entering astronaut Luca Parmitano's space helmet. In zero gravity, droplets of water could end up obscuring the astronaut's view on the faceplate, not to mention endangering the astronaut's respiratory system. In other words, if the leak continued, there was a remote chance it could interfere with Parmitano's breathing. To be on the safe side, Mission Control and the ISS commander canceled the remainder of the EVA and got the two astronauts into the airlock as quickly as was safely possible.

Inside the Airlock module: astronauts and cosmonauts go through "expedited" airlock procedures to get Parmitano into the station ASAP. 

While Parmitano entered the airlock and began procedures there, astronaut Chris Cassidy did a quick cleanup of equipment and also moved to the airlock. Both astronauts had completed the first steps of procedures for the scheduled EVA when the emergency began. 

As soon as it was safe, the hatch was opened. Cassidy radioed that he was fine, the crew should put all attention to helping Parmitano get the helmet off.

At one point the astronauts on ISS mentioned to Mission Control that Parmitano's radio had malfunctioned, and they could no longer hear him although he could be seen moving normally through the airlock window. That had to be a real edge-of-your-seat moment. Of course, around that time, a Mission Control spokesperson on NASA TV then mentioned, for the benefit of the audience no doubt, that astronaut Parmitano was in no real danger at that time. However, the urgency of action visible on the camera, and the content of the conversation, plus the knowledge of the actual situation, made it quite clear that this was an anxious situation.

First view of Parmitano leaving the airlock headfirst as other astronauts help him move forward.

I apologize for using pictures where other astronauts get in the way of a good view, but you kind of have to guess on when to make the screenshots. There's no director of cinematography up there to block moves and position cameras. I do have to say Kudos to NASA for keeping the cameras on and letting the public witness the professional way the team of ISS  worked to solve a potentially dangerous situation. As soon as Parmitano got completely into the module out of the airlock, the astronauts began working to remove the helmet. One astronaut (I couldn't tell who by voice) told another to quickly get towels to collect the water that could be released. That was definitely a clue that there was more water in there than was safe for the astronaut.

The Helmet is off, and moved away from Parmitano.

In the picture above, Commander of ISS cosmonaut Vinogradov is helping to get Parmitano prepared for removal of suit while another astronaut moves the helmet out of the way.

Beginning the mop-up of water in the helmet. You can just barely see Parmitano, still in suit with skull cap on, past the front astronaut.

While Vinogradov moves the Suit jet pack out of the way, astronaut Karen Nyberg helps Parmitano through the steps of getting out of the suit.

At one point, Commander Vinogradov uses a towel to wipe water off of the back and top of Parmitano's bald head. Certainly at this point concern was given to watch for any signs of the malfunction so it could be repaired later. Mission Control radioed to the ISS crew to document everything and take pictures of any problematic equipment.

Parmitano hands equipment to Vinogradov.

Nyberg helps remove the gloves from Parmitano's suit.

With the safety of Parmitano assured, astronaut Chris Cassidy now comes through the airlock hatch.

With the suit midsection releases opened, Parmitano slips out from the upper torso section.

Parmitano is out of the upper section of the suit.

While astronauts helped Cassidy out of his suit, Nyberg reported that Parmitano had said that the suit water tasted funny, not like the normal drinking water supplied to spacewalkers through their replenishment system. Parmitano also reported that the midsection of his body suit was dry as opposed to the wetter back torso and neck and shoulders. Just a guess, but I'm thinking a possible suit cooling system failure.

With both astronauts safe, TV coverage ended. NASA announced the ISS crew would continue with investigations and debriefings, with a press conference to occur today around 1:30 pm MDT. 

Today's EVA was part 2 of a series of walks to help prepare the station for the arrival of a new Russian module later this year. Tasks not completed today will be left to another spacewalk later on.

Monday, July 15, 2013

50 Years Ago: NASA Prepares for Apollo

Little Joe II being Assembled at White Sands testing range.

Fifty years ago, NASA had just concluded the Mercury Project, determining that man could survive in space and control a rocket in orbit and return safely to the Earth. The Gemini Program began, ready to send up a crew of two astronauts in each capsule to practice the skills which would be needed to make the trip from the Earth to the Moon. The first steps of the Apollo program continued, with the expansion of testing for the Saturn rocket components.

Little Joe 2 Mercury flight.

To test the Mercury spacecraft, NASA had flown test capsules on the diminutive Little Joe 2 rocket. Now, they planned to use an advanced version called Little Joe II (roman numeralized!) to do the same with the Apollo capsule. On July 15, 1963, components of the new Little Joe II were moved from the General Dynamics/Convair assembly plant to the White Sands Missile Test Range for preparation for testing.

Boeing 377 Guppy special cargo aircraft.

Days earlier, on July 12, the space agency transported a dummy Saturn S-IVB rocket stage to Cape Canaveral. This was the first time that a rocket stage was transported to the Cape by aircraft. Previous transfers had been made on special barges towed by tugboats across the Gulf of Mexico.

Guppy in a later paint scheme.

The Guppy was a rare vehicle. Engineers took a Boeing 377 Stratocruiser and extensively modified the fuselage to accept a hugely oversized payload just like the Saturn stage. It was nicknamed Guppy after the small freshwater fish which always seems to look like it swallowed something too big for its belly.

Saturn S-IVB stage being loaded through the center of the fuselage.

Saturn stage being loaded through the front loading section.

The latest version, the Boeing SuperGuppy.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

VTVL Grasshopper Continues to Succeed

Grasshopper rocket descends toward landing pad. Credit: SpaceX.

Science fiction fans are loving this. 

Back in the 1950's and early 60's it was a staple of Sci-fi space movies to include a group of intrepid explorers in their finned rocket blasting off from their government base, and landing at their destination in a similar manner: On it's tail!

On the Moon: scene from Destination Moon (1950) [George Pal Productions]. Look for astronauts near the base of the rocket for scale perspective.

These days it's SpaceX creating the rocket buzz. The company that has given us the Falcon rocket and the Dragon robotic spacecraft delivering supplies to the ISS, is producing a variant of the Falcon rocket that will be re-useable. Lifting off from its launchpad in McGregor, Texas, the most recent flight saw the Flacon 9 derivative reach 1066 feet (325 meters), hover, then descend to a perfect precision landing at its original pad. Parabolic Arc has the cool video of this event:

Grasshopper in flight. Credit: SpaceX

Currently, Grasshopper uses the Falcon 9 first stage and the Merlin 1D engine. Eventually, SpaceX hopes to fly an advanced version that will reach space, deliver its payload, then carefully re-enter the atmosphere and descend back to its pad. Then it would be refurbished, refueled, and fly again. The designation for this type of craft would be VTVL (Vertical Take-off Vertical Landing). 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Russian Proton M Rocket Explodes

After beginning to tumble, the rocket fuel tanks burst into flame. Credit: Russian TV.

After a week of space successes, the Russian space program suffered a setback Monday with the loss of a Proton-M rocket and its three global positioning navigation satellites. Launched from the Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan, the rocket lifted off OK but quickly developed a veer away from the flight path and started a tumble. As the rocket broke apart under the aerodynamic stress, the fuel exploded moments before the entire assembly crashed into the ground, creating a huge fireball.

Because the rocket broke up first, a large cloud of its rocket fuel, which is toxic to humans, moved with the wind towards the nearest town. Residents were warned to stay inside and close all windows and doors.

Reporter James Oberg notes that this type of rocket is scheduled to deliver a new module to the ISS later this year. The Russians might want to make sure this doesn't happen again...

A cloud of smoke marks the impact site. Credit: RiaNovosti