Sunday, December 25, 2016

Expedition 50 Celebrates Christmas in Space

Merry Christmas from the crew of Expedition 50 on board the International Space Station. Hope Santa has boosters to reach that high up in orbit.

The crew of the ISS is celebrating Christmas with light duties today, and getting some precious personal time. They'll be working on spacesuits tomorrow, in preparation for an upcoming EVA.
Japan's HTV-6 robotic cargo supply spacecraft is grappled by the CanadArm robotic arm under control of astronauts in the station.

Earlier this month, on December 13, the ISS received a new arrival in the form of a Japanese cargo spacecraft, operated by remote control, carrying supplies and experiments to the Expedition 50 crew. The HTV-6 blasted off from Tanegashima, and island off Japan, on December 9 and arrived on the 13th. One of the experiments on board is the KITE - Kounatori Integrated Tether Experiment - an electrodynamic tether which will eventually be developed to help remove space debris in the future.
About 8,000 pounds of equipment, fuel, batteries, supplies and hardware were brought to the station.
The HTV-6 was docked to the station's Harmony module, and is currently one of 4 vehicles docked to the station.

Currently occupied Docking Ports.

This is the sixth spacecraft of the current HTV design from Japan. There are planned to be three more launches of the current design. Engineers are designing the next generation HTV, designated HTV-X, which will use a service module for propulsion and allow for more cargo to be delivered. That launch is expected in 2021.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Two Re-entries: One Good, One Bad.

A Cygnus resupply vehicle grappled with the ISS robotic CanadArm.
There have been two fiery re-entries in the ISS program lately. One went well, the other did not. On November 27, the Cygnus OA-5 cargo spacecraft re-entered the atmosphere and burned up (along with a lot of space station trash) over the Pacific Ocean. On its way out, it performed some vital services. After undocking from the ISS to make room for future cargo deliveries, the Cygnus performed a test of the fire system aboard the spacecraft, with the goal to observe how fires behave in a zero0G environment. After the succesfull test, ground engineers operated the ship to a new high altitude Cygnus record of 500 kilometers, and then launched a series of four LEMUR cubesats. Two days llater the engineers guided Cygnus to its end.
Fiery breakup of an earlier Cygnus mission.
Night launch of a Progress supply mission.
Things did NOT go as planned for a Russian resupply mission to the ISS station. On Thursday December 3, Progress MS-04 blasted off from Baikonur with supplies for the astronauts in ISS. It was the 4th use of the revamped Progress series of robotic cargo ships. As engineers are still verifyiing safety tests with the new Progress and Soyuz variations, the plan was to continue using the 2-day orbital approach technique to the station rendezvous. Something went wrong during the third stage separation. Observers noted the fiery re-entry and crash over southern Russia. This marks the 3rd Progress failure in 65 launches.

Chinese Space Station Success

Illustration of China's new space station. Credit: China Daily.
China has made more progress in its ability to keep its Taikonauts in space for more than short stays in a Soyuz-like Shenzhou capsule. Much of the western media does not cover Chinese space efforts the way they cover the ISS, but a lot of that has to do with the restrictive nature of the Chinese government. China's space program is in a phase similar to that of the early Soviet space station stages, gradually building bigger space stations and living longer in orbit.
This illustration demonstrates how the Shenzhou 11 spacecraft would appear docked with the Tiangong 2. Credit: Xinhua.
The Chinese station was launched in mid-September from the Jiuquan satellite launch center from pad LC-43. It was originally built as a back-up for Tiangong 1, but with changes in the CHinese space program, it now serves a purpose to help Chinese Taikonauts prepare for a much larger space station program in 2018. With modifications made to the station, it will test new technologies needed for China's new modular-design station, similar to the transition Russia made from the Slayut station designs to the Mir station.
Crew of Shenzhou 11. Commander Jing Haipeng and Pilot Chen Dong. Credit: Xinhua.
Shenzhou 11 blasted off from the same pad that launched the station. The mission used the Long March 2F/G (Y11) rocket. Lift off took place on October 14. The government had been somewhat silent on the mission, finally announcing the crew shortly before the spacecraft arrived at the pad. The primary mission for the crew is to successfully dock with the station, and then break the Chinese record for an extended 30-day stay in orbit. The station does come equipped with some science experiments, mostly designed to help the taikonauts perform health studies and experiments. There is also a Chinese version of the robotic arm, which will become very essential to future operations.

Another illustration of a Shenzhou spacecraft docked with the Tiangong 2. Credit: ?
On Thursday, November 17, the Shenzhou 11 undocked from the station and returned its crew safely to the Earth. The mission achieved its major goals. On Friday, the spacecraft parachuted to a safe landing in Mongolia. 
There is some disagreement in Western Press about future missions to the Tiangong 2. Probably due to mistakes in Chinese government planning announcements. In one scenario, this Shenzhou 11 mission would end up as the only manned mission to the station. Another scenario includes a robotic supply mission to the station, to test the ability of a remote-piloted craft to resupply future missions. And yet another scenario includes a three-man mission later this year.