Sunday, September 29, 2013

Cygnus spacecraft docked to ISS

CanadArm helps Cygnus dock to ISS.

Orbital Sciences' Cygnus unmanned cargo spacecraft docked with the International Space STation this morning at about 6:44 a.m. MDT. Using the CanaArm robotic arm, ISS Expedition 37 astronauts grabbed the Cygnus as it approached to within 10 meters of the station, then gradually guided the craft to the docking port on the US-built Harmony station module.

Astronaut Karen Nyberg at the docking controls in the ISS Cupola with a great view.

With the spacecraft safely secured, astronauts will perform all required safety checks and pressurizations before opening the hatch on Monday. Once all cargo is unloaded, the craft will eventually be loaded with trash and waste and undocked, deorbited to burn up in the atmosphere during re-entry.

The successful docking of Cygnus today brings the program up to two commercial enterprises, Orbital Sciences and SpaceX, that can be counted on to provide additional supplies to the ISS. That of course means that any future stations or spacecraft in orbit of the Earth could be provided additional supplies on a regular basis, or in an emergency if it's ready. I don't think we're far off from the time when FedEx or UPS or some other delivery company will be using space orbits to make quick deliveries around the world or into space.

Now, if we can just get humans sent into space as cheaply!

You can see more pictures and a detailed description of the docking at NASA

Friday, September 27, 2013

Astronauts arrive at ISS, Cygnus docking Postponed

Inside the Soyuz: Astronauts in cramped capsule.

Reinforcements have arrived for Expedition 37. Blasting off from Baikonur on Wednesday, the Soyuz rocket needed only four orbits to catch up to the International Space Station and dock at 8:45 p.m. MDT. Two hours later, after systems check and air pressure equalization, the hatches were opened and the crew released from their tiny Soyuz capsule.

Soyuz spacecraft TMA-10M on approach to the docking port of ISS.

On board the Soyuz spaceship was Soyuz commander Oleg Kotov, astronaut Michael Hopkins and cosmonaut Sergei Ryazanskiy. Together they make up the second half of the Expedition 37 team. The spacecraft has been docked at the Poisk mini-module of the ISS. This part of the crew is scheduled for a five and a half month stay on the ISS.

Meanwhile, earlier software problems with the Cygnus robotic cargo spacecraft had originally caused a delay in the docking. With the imminent arrival of the Soyuz crewed vehicle, engineers decided to postpone the procedure after the fix, until this coming Sunday. We wish the best of luck to the Orbital Sciences team and hope for the best on the docking attempt.

Illustration of Cygnus near the station (Orbital Sciences).

Sunday, September 22, 2013

When things go Wrong in Space

Illustration of Cygnus near ISS.

Space Exploration is a risky business. Just talk to Orbital Sciences! It was just last Tuesday, Sep. 18, when the Antares rocket blasted off from the Virginia Wallops Island launch facility on the Atlantic coast, lifting the new Cygnus cargo pod into space. Only the second company to launch a private-industry spacecraft to the station, Orbital Sciences hoped to make docking with the space station after several days of flight testing navigational and maneuvering systems before making a final approach. 

Antares rocket lifts into a perfect sky.

The Antares rocket flew beautifully, placing the capsule into its planned orbit after a great show on NASA TV. Viewers were able to watch the company's mission control screen graphics show the departing stages and protective fairing, followed by the last stage placing the cargo ship on its correct trajectory.

MIssion Control operations screen. Antares second stage firing maneuvering thrusters.

Once in orbit, tests began on the various spacecraft systems to ensure a safe approach and docking with the station. It was on its last step of maneuvering for docking this morning when the engineers noted a flaw in the GPS programming. The GPS system ensures a fully-controlled robotic ground-controlled docking without significant risk to bumping the station, such as happened to the Russian MIR station last century when a Progress capsule smacked into a station module.

Wallops Island mission control. I need to find out if this is the launch control or Orbital Sciences' mission control.

Just recently the word came down, a delay of 48 hours while engineers work to correct the glitch before they try another docking attempt. OS is pretty confident the software problem will be repaired and the next attempt will occur on Tuesday. Our hopes go with the Cygnus team. NASA Spaceflight has a great article on the procedures used to approach and dock with the sttation here:

Meanwhile, WAY OUT in space, it appears that the Deep Impact space probe is beyond repair from the ground, and NASA has declared the mission ended. It was a valuable mission exploring comets and asteroids and managed to go beyond its planned mission parameters. Truly a successful space mission.

Tempel 1 moments after being hit by a probe from Deep Impact spacecraft.

Thursday, September 12, 2013


Japan's HTV-4 prior to release by the robotic arm.

Spaceships come and spaceships go.  The last week saw a couple of spaceships leave the ISS while a space probe lost contact. On September 4, the HTV-4 space cargo module was undocked and released into orbit using the station's robotic arm. Japan's 4th cargo module had been unloaded of supplies and filled with trash and other disposables. Since the craft was not designed to return to Earth safely, it was guided to a de-orbit burn-up over the ocean.

The glow from HTV-4's re-entry lights up the night sky.

Ground controllers timed the re-entry so that the ISS would be overhead while it occurred, thus providing a great light show over the Pacific that could be pictured from space. Check Sp
aceflight Now for more pictures:

Expedition 36 comes to a bumpy end in 3, 2, 1...

Expedition 36 has completed with the safe landing of Soyuz TMA-08M. Touchdown in Kazakhstan took place on Tuesday the 10th, and the crewmembers Pavel Vinogradov, Alexander Misurkin, and Christopher Cassidy were quickly surrounded by support crew who helped them out of their cramped capsule and into comfy warm seats. After their 5 month stay on the ISS, it will take a while to readjust to the Earth's gravity (and normal life).

Change of Command ceremony. Farewell, Expedition 36!

On Monday September 9, Expedition 36 commander Pavel Vinogradov officially turned over command of the station to Fyoder Yurchikhin who becomes the commander of Expedition 37. Expedition 36 will be remembered for several spacewalks in preparation for the upcoming arrival of a new Russian module. One of those EVA's saw a near disaster as astronaut Luca Parmitano suffered from a leak of water into his space helmet. The next reinforcements for the ISS will launch on September 25.

Lost in space: Deep Impact. (NASA illustration)

Gone for good? JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) controllers indicate that they may have permanently lost contact with the Deep Impact space probe. Apparently a software problem began to continually reboot the system, which cut off commands to use the thrusters to maintain attitude control. Without that control, the spacecraft cannot reorient itself to maintain radio contact with Earth. More importantly, power will run down as the craft's solar panels will not be pointed in the right direction for recharging.

During its 4.7 billion mile journey so far, Deep Impact has deployed an impact probe into comet Tempel 1, completed a close flyby of comet Hartley 2, and imaged comets C/2009 P1 and comet ISON.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Rocket launch updates

Long March 4C rocket blasts off from Jiuquan, China.

The last couple of weeks have seen the usual flurry of rocket launches from around the world. These satellite launches rarely make TV coverage, but are an important sign of the strength of space programs around the world. They demonstrate how reliant we are upon the space technology that lies behind our way of life in the 21st century.

Launch of  a Long March rocket from Jiuquan.

Yesterday China launched a Long MArch 4C rocket from its Jiuquan Satellite launch center. Three satellites, expected to be secret spy satellites, were placed into orbit.  The Jiquan Center is the same facility from where the Chinese Manned Missions take place. NASA has a great article on this launch at :

Russian Zenit S2B rocket. Credit: Ria Novosti.

On Sunday September 1st, the Russian Zenit rocket returned to duty, placing an Israeli communications satellite into space. This rocket is the land-based version of the Zenit Sea-launched version. The last Zenit launch from its sea-based space center failed, destroying an Intelsat satellite. This launch took place from Baikonur launch facility in Kazakhstan.

The heavy-lift Ariane 5 blasts off. Credit: Ariannespace.

Last Thursday the European Space Agency launched an Ariane 5  heavy lift rocket from its space center in French Guiana on the coast of South America. The two satellites were successfully placed into orbit. One was a European communications satellite, the other a military satellite for India.

The powerful Delta-4 rocket on the pad at Vandenberg AFB, California. 
Credit: ULA & Spaceflight Now.

Last Wednesday morning saw the launch of the Delta-4 rocket under the direction of the United Launch Alliance. Launch site was the Vandenberg Air Force Base pad in California. The mission placed a National Reconnaissance spy satellite into space. 

Japanese Epsilon rocket on the pad at Uchinoura facility. Credit: JAXA.

Things didn't work out very well for the expected launch of the Japanese Epsilon rocket on August 27. The Epsilon is a new rocket, expected to place the SPRINT-A satellite into orbit. The SPRINT-A is an observatory which will study the planets in our solar system. An unexpected malfunction caused the countdown to terminate with 19 seconds left. Engineers are working on the problem. Keep an eye on Space.Com for updates: