Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Russian Cargo Ship Reaches ISS

The Progress cargo ship looks very much like a manned Soyuz spacecraft. This one is Progress M-27M.
Taking off from Baikonur on Monday, the Progress 62 robotic cargo ship entered Earth orbit and began a two-day flight to the International Space Station. Rather than follow the now-typical 6 hour short cut rendezvous flight to the ISS, ground controllers guided the ship into the longer flight to make room for Monday's unplanned EVA by NASA astronauts to move the Mobile Transport cart to a safe location on the truss.

Progress 62 indicated two new mission equipment upgrades. The Progress ship is the first of a new MS series of supply ships, that include en external compartment for launching micro satellites, and an improved system for protection from micro-meteoroids and debris strikes. The Russian (Roscosmos) designation for this mission is Progress MS431.

Soyuz 2-1A rocket booster. Credit Roscosmos.
The second upgrade is in the rocket itself. It can get confusing when the manned spacecraft is named Soyuz, but so too is the rocket. In this case the mission launched atop  a Soyuz 2-1A rocket. First flown in 2004, it was designed to eventually replace all rockets used for manned and unmanned missions flown by previous Soyuz and Molniya variants. It has been used for manned Soyuz missions so far, but is now being used by Progress missions.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Success for SpaceX and Falcon 9!

Falcon 9 after touching down on the Cape Canaveral landing site. Credit: SpaceX.

Happy congratulations to SpaceX and the Falcon 9 team! On Monday night, SpaceX launched the newest version of the Falcon, the Falcon 9 Full Thrust, with a payload of eleven Orbcomm communications satellites aboard the payload stage. An earlier attempt Sunday was cancelled due to weather concerns, but this time the rocket took off perfectly and sent the payload stage into orbit, successfully releasing the constellation of satellites.
View of landing Falcon 9 from hovering helicopter. Credit: SpaceX.

SpaceX also broke a new record by returning the first stage Falcon 9 back to the Cape Canaveral launch location and the newly- refurbished pad LC-13. That launch site was previously used in the 60's and 70's to launch Atlas missiles and Atlas-Agena rockets carrying satellites, and was last used in 1978. The launch tower and blockhouse were later demolished and the site declared a historic landmark. SpaceX recently leased the site from the Air Force and prepared it as a landing site for re-useable Falcon first stages. Previous attempts to land the Falcon were carried out at sea on landing barges, and all resulted in crashed rocket stages. This was the first attempt to return to land, and was successful as the pictures show. Prior to this, Blue Origin successfully landed a sub-orbital launched New Shephard rocket. The SpaceX success was more complicated, as this effort was a launch into orbital space.

Short Unplanned EVA for ISS

EVA on the station truss. NASA TV.

Early Monday morning, astronauts Scott Kelly and Tim Kopra of NASA made an unplanned spacewalk out onto the station truss to fix a jammed piece of equipment.  On December 17, ground controllers in the ISS mission control were remote-moving the Mobile Transporter (MT), which is a sort of cart that carries equipment along the Truss grid. The manipulator arm can attach to it as well as several other tools. Engineers suspected a brake had somehow activated and was preventing the MT from moving any further. At this location, the MT was unsecured. It was thought that when the next Progress spacecraft arrived for docking, the station would be unable to change attitude in preparation for docking maneuvers, and the MT could become unstable and move dangerously. With ground control clearance, the astronauts went outside for a three and a half hour spacewalk to free the mechanism. They successful disengaged the brake, and ground controllers were then able to move the MT to a safe location. The astronauts were safely back inside after 3 hours and 16 minutes.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

50 Years Ago: Gemini VI-A Joins Gemini VII

Third Time's the charm: Gemini VI-A lifts off perfectly from Pad LC-19 on December 15, 1965.
While Gemini VII flew a long-duration mission in Earth orbit, NASA flight engineers reconfigured the Gemini VI mission to use Gemini VII as a rendezvous target. The first mission, Gemini VI, was cancelled when the Agena target vehicle was lost in an accident during launch over the Atlantic Ocean. The mission was revised to use Gemini VII as a target, and so the designation of the rendezvous mission was changed to Gemini VI-A.
Astronauts Tom Stafford (L) and Wally Schirra (R).
The Gemini VI-A crew included former Mercury astronaut Wally Schirra, making his second flight to space, and rookie astronaut Tom Stafford. Unlike the Gemini VII astronauts Frank Borman and Jim Lovell, they wore the standard Gemini space suits and were expected to be in space only for the one day. Their task was to reach the other spacecraft and perform a complex series of maneuvers. Originally the mission included docking with the Agena target vehicle, but the Gemini capsule had no provision for docking.

Rendezvouz acheived! 
At five hours and four minutes into the flight, Captain Schirra caught sight of what he at first assumed was the bright star Sirius, but instead turned out to be Gemini VII. During the fourth orbit, the two spacecraft caught up to each other. 
Gemini orbiting over the Earth.
Gemini VI displays a message in the window for Frank Borman in Gemini VII.
During the rendezvous, the spacecraft took turns approaching and flying formation with each other, eventually getting in formation only one foot apart (while flying 17,500 mph!). In one pass, astronauts Schirra and Stafford took the opportunity to send a jovial message in the window to Frank Borman. The sign read "Beat Army," a reference to the upcoming Army vs. Navy college football game coming up (In 1965 the game was a tie, in 2015, the game was held just recently on the 12th, and Navy beat Army). Astronauts Schirra, Stafford, and Lovell were all Naval Academy graduates, and Borman was an Army West Point graduate. After four hours and twenty minutes of formation flying, the two craft moved apart by 16 kilometers to avoid any collisions during the upcoming sleep period. Suddenly astronaut Schirra called down to NASA that an unknown object was approaching from a polar orbit. Before NASA could reply, Christmas music was heard on the radio and Schirra and Stafford played "Jingle Bells" on a harmonic and small bells, making the first time musical instruments were used in space.
Safe on board the recovery ship.
The next day, Gemini VI-A de-orbited and landed in the Atlantic Ocean only 11 miles from the rescue ship USS Wasp, making the most accurate landing so far in the American Space Program.

Expedition 46 Arrives at ISS

Soyuz TMA-19M blasts off from Baikonur.

Another Soyuz rocket lifted off from Baikonur in Kazakhstan at 4:03 am Mountain time this morning. On board were Soyuz commander Yuri Malenchenko (Roscosmos), Tim Copra (NASA), and Tim Peake (ESA). The take off looked beautiful in the late afternoon skies, and the Soyuz craft headed for a quick 6 hour flight to the International Space Station. 
A Soyuz spacecraft docked to the ISS in 2014.
At 10:33 am Mountain Time, the Soyuz completed rendezvous maneuvers and docked with the station at the Rasvet module docking hatch. Hatch opening was set for a little after 12 pm Mountain time. The crew of the Soyuz will join Expedition 46 commander Scott Kelly (NASA - one one year mission), flight engineer Mikhail Kornienko (Roscosmos - one year mission), and flight engineer Sergey Volkov (also from Roscosmos). 

TMA-19M crew before boarding. Top to bottom - Yuri Malenchenko, Tim Kopra, Tim Peake. Credits:NASA TV.
In the pre-dawn hours of Sunday, the booster carrying Soyuz TMA-19M is pushed out to the launch pad by a railroad engine.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Expedition 45 Returns to Earth

The crew of Expedition 45 preparing to board their return flight. From L-R: Astronaut Kjell Lindgren (NASA), cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko (Roscosmos), and astronaut Kimiya Yui (JAXA).

After 141 days in space, part of the Expedition 45 crew on the ISS boarded their Soyuz space craft and undocked from the station at 2:49 am Mountain Time. For Soyuz commander Oleg Kononenko, it completes his third mission in space, giving him a total of 553 days in orbit. For the other two astronauts it completes their first missions.

 A view inside the crew module (located between the service module and the science module). The hatch is in the bottom of the picture. Very crowded conditions in the Russian spacecraft.

 Picture of the TMA-17M Soyuz spacecraft thrusting back from its docking port. Another spacecraft remains docked to the station in case the remaining three ISS members need to evacuate.

Procedures for de-orbiting and descent of the Soyuz crew module.

The crew completed the braking firing of the engine at 5: 23 am Mountain Time. Touchdown was at 6:12 am Mountain time, which was 7: 12 pm in Kazakhstan. Rescue crews quickly arrived and helped the crew out of the capsule and into helicopters for the ride back to base. It was the first time a Soyuz crew from the station has landed after sunset.
With the departure of the Expedition 45 crew, Mike Kelly on the ISS remains as commander, but now leads Expedition 46. Three more Expedition 46 crew are expected to arrive on December 15.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Cygnus Supply Spacecraft Reaches ISS

Cygnus cargo ship OA-4 "SS Deke Slayton II" approaches the ISS. Credit: Roscosmos.
Early this morning, the International Space Station received a large package from Earth carrying supplies and experiments. Orbital ATK's Cygnus cargo spacecraft reached the station after careful maneuvering by ground controllers following a two and a half day flight mission from Earth. The last attempt to send a Cygnus cargo ship to the ISS failed last year when the company's new Antares booster exploded at launch, destroying the ship and the pad in a ball of fire. SpaceX's Dragon was destroyed in its last attempt. SpaceX plans to launch again soon after correcting booster problems. While the Antares is under further review and correction, Orbital ATK is using the Atlas V booster to reach orbit.
 Cygnus spacecraft on the Atlas V rocket at pad SLC-41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: NASA.

The rocket took off Sunday at 4:44 pm Eastern from Space Launch Complex 41 under the care of the United Launch Alliance (ULA) which manages Atlas V flights with NASA.  The spacecraft is an improved cargo vessel allowing over 7,700 pounds of supplies to reach the station. The craft was the heaviest object yet to be launched by the Atlas V rocket, weighing over 16,000 pounds.

Current locations of docked spacecraft at the ISS. NASA.
After the Cygnus docked at 7:14 am Eastern, astronauts started the process of equalizing pressures and making sure all spacecraft systems are set for the stay to the end of January. They will open the hatch tomorrow and begin transferring the equipment and supplies. Meanwhile, astronauts are also preparing for half the crew to leave on Friday to return to Earth.

Friday, December 4, 2015

50 Years Ago: Gemini 7 Blasts off for Complex Mission

The Titan rocket lifts off from Pad LC-19 at Cape Kennedy.

On December 4, 1965, astronauts Frank Borman and Jim Lovell were carried into space by a Titan rocket on board the Gemini VII spacecraft. Their mission was to test how astronauts could adapt to a very long space flight, and eventually they completed 20 experiments. Because of the cramped environment of the Gemini capsule, great care and planning had gone into the storage and retrieval of everything from food packs to waste sample bags and even scraps of paper.

Astronaut Lovell in the new spacesuit prior to boarding.

Both astronauts were testing a new spacesuit for this mission, the G5C design. This suit replaced the traditional helmet for a zippered hood, which would cover a NASA flight helmet which included communications gear. Additional zippers and connections were meant to make it easier to remove the suit in the tiny confines of the capsule and reduce storage space used. During the first part of the flight, the suits proved to be very uncomfortable and hot. The experience helped NASA to decide that astronauts would be better off without spacesuits on during most of a mission except during critical flight operations.

Besides the long-duration aspect of the mission, an additional parameter had been changed to test rendezvous skills that would be needed for later Apollo Moon missions. The Gemini VI mission had been planned to take place on October 25, but was cancelled when the Agena docking target was lost during blast off just before the manned mission began. Modifications were made to the Gemini VI mission, so that they could take off during the second half of the Gemini VII mission and use the Gemini VII spacecraft as its new rendezvous target.

Until that time, Borman and Lovell would spend their days in zero gravity performing experiments related to living and working in space. The worst part of the mission had to be when they were required at times to store waste samples, which would sometimes release disgusting odors into the tiny living area. Then there were also times of boredom. Following the advice of Pete Conrad, they had taken along a few books. Many of the personal health and hygiene skills practiced on this mission helped astronauts in later long-duration missions live more comfortably.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Rocket Soft-Landing Achieved!

Don't be fooled: This rocket is not taking off, it is LANDING! (Cr: Blue Origin)

It's been on the minds of rocketeers since the space movies of the 1950's. Back in the day, our sci-fi movies routinely had the space travelers land by pointing their rocket engines to the ground and descending until the rocketship landed on its sturdy fins or on special landing pads. From an operator's point of view, it would make the rocket reusable and lower costs of transportation. In search of that goal, NASA (and their Air Force-influenced engineers) designed the Space Shuttle System which allowed the winged vehicle to glide to a stop on a long runway. In the 90's, NASA sponsored new designs to replace the shuttle with further winged technology, All of it was deemed too expensive, so nothing came of it. The space shuttle was determined to be too dangerous and expensive, so the government terminated the program and left our astronauts dependent on Russian cheap (relatively, of course) throw away rockets and capsules. For a moment, things looked interesting with the DC-X project which was able to land on its legs after launching, but that was abandoned.

Slow and steady wins the day, just before touchdown. (Cr: Blue Origin)

Now we are in the final stretches of a new space race, between innovative companies who are creating commercial replacements for the NASA cash-guzzling behemoths. SpaceX gained attention with its repeated attempts to land its Falcon first stage on a landing barge in the Atlantic after launching the Dragon cargo spacecraft. To date, each attempt has ended in failure but has been better and better and will definitely soon see a success. Then suddenly, without fanfare, competing entrepreneurs of Blue Origin launched their New Shephard sub-orbital rocket last April.  Now they have done it again, recording the first successful landing of a rocket which has gone into space. The New Shepard rocket blasted off from Texas on Monday morning, hurling its test capsule into a sub-orbital hop up to 100 kilometers, which then safely returned to Earth and landed via parachute.  The main stage rocket though, reached a height of 330,000 feet and then returned to Earth - by landing on its legs.
As great as this achievement is, it is still a different matter to return the stage from launching a craft into orbit. The SpaceX Falcon stage will have placed the Dragon cargo ship into space to reach a speed of 17,500 mph, which is a much higher degree of difficulty than what was achieved by Blue Origin last week. Nevertheless, it's a great step, and points to exciting things to come.

Blue Origin engineers celebrate the landing of the New Shepard stage, in the background. Cr: Blue Origin.