Thursday, October 30, 2014

Cygnus Loss Comes During Busy Week of Traffic for ISS

Dragon cargo spacecraft attached to ISS CanadArm robotic arm. About to let go and drift free of the station before de-orbiting. Credit: SpaceX.

Tuesday's spectacular destruction of the Orbital Science Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft happened during a busy week of transitions at the International Space Station. The crew of Expedition 41 had seen an eventful October so far with three spacewalks. The crew has begun preparations for an eventual rearranging of the station's docking modules, readying for the time when commercial spacecraft will be arriving with regular ferry flights transferring astronauts between Earth and the station. New experiments are arriving, old ones are being returned to Earth of discarded, garbage is being removed, and supplies building up.

The Dragon spacecraft floats down via parachute to a watery recovery off the coast of Baja California. Credit: SpaceX

Currently there is a regular fleet of unmanned spacecraft that come and go at the ISS bringing supplies or removing equipment and garbage. The only one that actually returns to Earth is SpaceX's Dragon. On Saturday, the Dragon undocked from the station loaded with returning equipment and science experiments and samples, and made a safe splashdown in the Pacific Ocean for a speedy recovery.

A Russian Progress cargo ship undocks and moves away from the ISS. This one happens to be an earlier Progress 35 mission.

On Monday, while the Cygnus "Deke Slayton" spaceship waited for liftoff (which was scrubbed Monday due to an intruding boat near the launch site), The Progress 56 mission spacecraft undocked from the ISS loaded with garbage and waste. It would burn up in the atmosphere upon re-entry. The departure cleared the way for a new ship to dock at the Pirs module.

Spacecraft docked at the ISS on October 27. Cr: NASA.

After the departure of the Progress 56 craft, there remained two Soyuz crew spaceships and the European Space Agency's ATV-5 cargo ship. Recently, the ATV-5 engines were used to move the station away from a potential collision with space debris.

Then the Cygnus flight was cancelled, unexpectedly.

Pad 0A at Wallops Island, Virginia. Wreckage of the spacecraft is being examined and cleared.

It will take weeks to analyze what exactly happened to the Antares rocket. There is, of course, damage to the pad, the buildings and equipment around the pad, and to a nearby sounding rocket launcher as well.

And then it was back to business!

Soyuz rocket lifts off with the Progress 57 mission.

Early Wednesday, the Russian space agency launched a Soyuz 2-1A rocket from Baikonur in Kazakhstan. This rocket variant replaces the usual Soyuz-U, and uses new engine types. The launch was good, and the Progress M-25M spacecraft (designated Progress57 by NASA) headed into orbit on a six-hour trip to the ISS.

Progress approaches the station.

Progress slowly approaches towards the Pirs module.

Progress almost ready to dock.

Exactly six hours after launching, the Progress spacecraft docked with the ISS bringing supplies of fuel, air, water, propellant, and scientific equipment. Progress 57 will stay docked for the next 6 months. The Progress 56 spacecraft, still in orbit, will be performing ground-controlled engineering tests in orbit until commanded to de-orbit and burn up in the atmosphere.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Cygnus Spacecraft Destroyed in Explosion

The Antares rocket suffers its first explosion. The rocket then fell back onto the launchpad in a terrifying fireball. Credit NASA.

Yesterday at 4:22 P.M. our time in Utah, 6:22 on the East Coast, Mission CRS-3 was destroyed during liftoff. The mission was the third launch of Orbital Science's Antares rocket and Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station this year. The Cygnus craft on this mission was nicknamed "Slayton" after astronaut Deke Slayton (deceased), one of the original Mercury astronauts. The Cygnus carried 5,000 pounds of supplies, equipment and experiments, all of which were lost when the spacecraft erupted in flames during the crash.

The final fireball completely enveloped the launchpad. No personnel were in the area.

15 seconds after ignition, the rocket seemed to be soaring upwards when unexpected flames erupted from the first stage. The rocket stopped moving upwards and fell back onto the pad, erupting more flames as it fell, finally being destroyed in a magnificent explosion. Scientists with Orbital Sciences and NASA immediately began contingency operations to backup all data and film in the control room and surrounding the pad while emergency crews raced to the pad to put out the fires. The launch site involved was Pad 0A at the Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia's Atlantic coast. The Antares rocket used for this flight used the AJ-26 engines made in the Ukraine. These engines are modified Russian rockets from the old Soviet N-1 Moon Rocket program. There have been several Antares flights with these rocket engines, and none had this kind of problem, although an AJ-26 engine suffered a failure during a test. Investigators will have to determine if the disaster was caused by the engines or some other malfunction.

Distant view of the disaster from the Virginia mainland.

Astronauts on the ISS watched the disaster on live satellite broadcast (as did everyone tuning in on NASA TV). The crew of the ISS are OK with the supplies they have for a little time, and can wait for upcoming supplies. In fact, A Russian Soyuz rocket blasted off very early this morning from Baikonur lifting its Progress M-25M cargo spacecraft into orbit. About six hours later, it has already docked with the station. The Progress supply craft brings needed cargo, water, and propellant to the ISS. The SpaceX Dragon supply ship is scheduled to launch to the ISS in December.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Expedition 41 Completes 3 EVAs in October

Astronaut Reid Wiseman prepares to exit the Station for a walk in space, October 7.

In one month, the crew of Expedition 41 aboard the ISS has completed three important EVAs to complete maintenance, science, and preparation goals. On October 7, 2014, astronauts Reid Wiseman (NASA) and Alexander Gerst (European Space Agency) completed a six-plus hour spacewalk that was the first US spacewalk for the year. It was the first spacewalk for both astronauts. Their first task was to move a failed water pump from a temporary holding location and place it in a more permanent spot on the outside of the station. Next, the pair replaced a lighting unit for a camera mounted on the US Destiny space module. Then Wiseman replaced a backup power unit for the mobile remote arm platform which is capable of traveling the length of the station truss. The pair then returned to the station.

Fish-eye lens view of Wiseman on the EVA.

October 14. Astronaut Barry Wimore (left) and astronaut Wiseman (right) prepare for a second EVA in October.

During a second American EVA on the 14th, Reid Wiseman and Barry Wilmore exited the station to replace a failed power channel. Their second job was to begin preparations for the long-term reconfiguration of the station. As the new Commercial-built spacecraft come on line, along with the new Orion capsule, the station will have some of its docking ports rearranged to increase the number of spacecraft which can dock with the ISS at the same time. The EVA lasted a bit over 6 hours. 

Russian cosmonauts outside the Zvesda module.

On EVA 40 (third of October and the last one scheduled for 2014), cosmonauts Maksin Suraev (commander) and Alexander Samokutyaev (flight engineer) successfully completed their spacewalk goals a couple of hours ahead of schedule! The first task was to remove the Radiometriya experiment from the exterior (having completed the experiment) and they gently shoved the item off from the station and into space. They next removed the cover from the Expose-R experiment, which tests certain biological samples in space. They then Moved two external communications antennas to a new location for improved performance. Finally they retrieved some samples by the Pirs airlock and returned to the station interior.