Sunday, August 6, 2017

ISS: The View from the Cupola.

Astronaut Peggy Whitson doing what any one of us would do in space: Look back at Earth. (NASA)

When members of the International Space Station aren't doing experiments, maintaining the station, eating, or doing hours of exercise, they share a common interest: looking at home. In the photo above, posted by astronaut Peggy Whitson, she comments that even after 638 days in space, she finds the view incredible. She is pictured above during some personal time in the cupola, the station's best viewport of the planet Earth. Click to enlarge. There is a Russian spacecraft visible in the upper left, and a solar panel just off to the center left.

What would you most want to view from space?

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Three New Crew for Expedition 52 Arrive at ISS

Contact! Soyuz crewed spaceship MS-05 reaches the docking port on the International Space Station. (NASA TV)

 ISS Expedition 52 received three new crewmembers with the arrival on Friday of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Using the six-hour ascent interception plan, the Soyuz reached the station safely and docked at 5:54 Eastern Daylight time. On board the spacecraft were Soyuz commander Sergei Ryazanskiy (Roscosmos), astronaut Randy Bresnick (NASA) and astronaut Paulo Naspoli (ESA). The crew now stands at six, including Expedition 52 commander Fyodor Yurchikhin (Roscosmos), Peggy Whitson (NASA), and Jack Fischer (NASA). 

Soyuz training photo. L-R: Paulo Nespoli, Sergei Ryazanskiy, Randy Bresnick.

The new crew is expected to remain on the ISS for four months. During that time, the station expects arrivals from Dragon, Progress, and Cygnus cargo spacecraft. Much of the science work for this mission will involve medical studies including an interesting look at how Parkinson's disease is started. They will also study how small satellites can be used in critical situations such as natural disasters or severe weather monitoring. The original Exp. 52 crew of Yurchikhin, Whitson and Fischer are expected to leave the station in September.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

SpaceX Scores! Re-Used Dragon Docks with ISS

View from ISS: Robotic arm guides the captured Dragon cargo ship to its docking port. (NASA TV)

It has been a dream of the folks at SpaceX to begin launching re-used spacecraft, with the goal to reduce costs of space transportation. Well they can check off a major milestone now, because on June 3rd, they launched the first refitted Dragon cargo space capsule on board a Falcon 9 rocket. Days later, the Dragon caught up to the ISS and astronauts Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer used the SSRMS (Space Station Remote Manipulator System) robotic arm to grapple the craft and move it to dock at the U.S. Harmony module.

Current locations of docked spacecraft at the International Space Station. (NASA)
 
The Dragon spacecraft used on this mission (CRS-11) was previously used on mission CRS-4. After returning safely to Earth, it was unloaded, inspected, cleaned, and repaired with some new parts to keep it in operable condition. The only spacecraft to have done this sort of thing before, was the Space Shuttle, last docked at the ISS in 2011. This is the second time SpaceX has reached a re-usability objective - the first was in March when a refurbished Falcon 9 first stage successfully delivered a satellite to orbit and then landed again. Although the Falcon 9 used in this mission has not flown before, it did land safely at LC-13 at Cape Canaveral, and will now be refurbished for a future flight.
Falcon-9 rocket safely standing after an upright landing on pad LC-13. (SpaceX)

The ISS crew will take their time removing science equipment and space parts from the Dragon. It will stay docked until July 2nd. This week will keep them quite busy, as the schedule sees two spacecraft events: the undocking of Russian Progress 66 from the station, and the arrival of a new Russian ship, the Progress 67.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

ISS: Cargo and Crew Transfers Underway

Soyuz MS-03 undocks from the International Space Station. A Progress Supply ship is docked in the background. (Credit: NASA)

On June 2, Soyuz ship MS-03 departed for a return trip to Earth. Rather than the usual three crewmembers, this trip only included two: Oleg Novitskiy (Roscosmos) and Thomas Pesquet (ESA). 
Before the departure, a Change of Command ceremony took place.
Peggy Whitson turns over command of the station to Fyodor Yurchikhin. (Credit: NASA TV)

On June 1st, Expedition 51 officially ended when astronaut Peggy Whitson gave command to cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin. With the ceremony completed, the Expedition 52 period did not officially begin until Novitskiy and Pesquet departed for Earth. The two had 196 days in space before leaving on Friday. Crew reinforcements for Expedition 52 will arrive in July.
From L-R: Novistkiy, Whitson, Pesquet. (NASA)
 
 
Computer simulation of Soyuz module separations during re-entry process. The crew is located in the center module, which has the heat shield. The service module and crew docking module burn up during re-entry.
 
Touchdown! Soyuz MS-03 safely lands after firing landing thrusters activate during the final few moments of descent. Landing took place in Kazakhstan.

Meanwhile, there is a resupply mission ending and another one beginning. SpaceX was due to launch a special resupply mission on Friday, but had to postpone for a day because of lightning concerns at the launch site. This mission (CRS-11) would feature the first use of a reusable Dragon cargo ship. Ship number C-106 was last used on mission CRS-4 in September of 2014.



Falcon-9 rocket lifts off from LC-39A at Kennedy Space Center, FL. (Credit: SpaceX)

Actual launch of mission CRS-11 took place Saturday June 3. The Falcon 9 rocket took off flawlessly and after ten minutes separated from the Dragon spacecraft, which continued its flight into orbit. The rocket itself however, descended by parachute and engine power to land vertically back at Kennedy on pad LC-13. With a safe landing, the rocket can be refurbished and prepared to be reused on another future flight.

Cygnus resupply spacecraft. (NASA)
 
While Dragon makes its way to the ISS, another ship is leaving. Early Sunday morning, astronauts Jack Fischer and Peggy Whitson used the station's CanadArm robotic arm to pull the undocked Cygnus spacecraft OA-7 (Named John H. Glenn) from its berth and release it. This move comes a month earlier than scheduled, in an effort to reduce the future workload for the crew. The Cygnus will now move away from the station, and spend a week doing experiments under control from ground flight engineers. The John H. Glenn will deploy several small satellites on Thursday, and after experiments are completed, the craft will de-orbit and burn up over the Pacific Ocean on June 11.

 

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Equipment Failure on ISS Triggers Unplanned EVA

Astronaut Peggy Whitson making repairs to the EXT-1.
 
It doesn't happen often on the ISS, but when a critical electrical command component breaks down, it's great to know there's a backup system in place. In this case, on May 20 the EXT-1 MDM electrical command controller went down. It controlled external US segment systems, which includes things like the Mobile Transporter (MT),  Secondary Electrical Power System (SEPS), Passive Thermal Control System (PTCS), and a couple of Truss rotary joints. When the system failed, the EXT-2 took over right away so there was no degradation of systems. However, if THAT item were to fail, NASA would have lost control over the facing direction of the solar radiators and several other critical station systems along the Truss.
Astronaut Jack Fischer moves along the outside of a module.
 
Immediately the decision was made to go outside and replace the broken equipment. Using components stored aboard the station for such a situation, a new EXT-1 was assembled and tested. Then on May 23, astronauts Peggy Whitson (Commander of Expedition 51) and Jack Fischer made a short spacewalk of over two hours. The mission event was a success, and systems are back to normal.
Record holders for EVAs.
 
This EVA brings Peggy Whitson into the top three record holders for time spent on spacewalks. Currently, the Russians hold the lead.
You can read more details of the operation at NASA SpaceFlight.com: https://www.nasaspaceflight.com/2017/05/spacewalkers-unplanned-eva-replace-failed-ext-1-mdm/

Sunday, May 14, 2017

200th EVA for ISS

US Astronaut Jack Fisher prepares to enter the airlock and go for a walk.
 
Although designated US-42, the spacewalk on Friday by two US astronauts was also the 200th spacewalk for the construction and maintenance of the International Space Station. Astronauts Peggy Whitson (NASA, Commander of Expedition 51) and Jack FIsher (NASA, Exp. 51 flight engineer, on his first mission in space) conducted a four hour spacewalk that was shortened due to problems with battery power in one of the suits.

During their EVA, they accomplished quite a bit of work. They replaced an avionics box supplying electricity to some experiments, a data connector to the Alpha Imaging Spectrometer, insulation on the Japanese robotic arm, and a shield cover on Pressurized Mating Adapter 3. In total, there have been almost 1248 hours of spacewalks since the first one in 1998.

For more information on station activities, go to: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/main/index.html .

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Surprise! Military shuttle X-37B lands at KSC

Front view of the X-37B on the shuttle runway at the Kennedy Space Center. Engineers wear protective suits so they will avoid contamination by any volatile chemicals. (US Air Force photo from Spaceflightnow.com)

The fourth X-37B mission has finally come to an end. Currently the US Air Force has two X-37 spacecraft (that we know of), and this was spacecraft number - well, we don't know, because the US Air Force does not officially disclose which of its spacecraft are up there during a mission. We DO know that it lifted off on May 20, 2015, on an Atlas 5 booster from Cape Canaveral LC-41. It spent 718 days in space.
 
 Side view of the X-37B. (US Air Force photo from Spaceflightnow.com)

For more information on this mission, check out SpaceFlightNow.com:
https://spaceflightnow.com/2017/05/07/x-37b-spaceplane-returns-to-earth-and-makes-precision-autopilot-landing/

50 Years Ago: Surveyor 3 on the Moon

Photo of Surveyor 3 actually on the Moon, as taken by astronauts of Apollo 12 years later.

Fifty years ago, NASA continued its preparations for the Apollo program by landing another probe on the lunar surface. This was the third in the Surveyor series, built by Hughes Aircraft, and principally tasked with getting photos of the surface, and sampling the soil. This was the first space probe to include an extendable scoop to bring lunar dust to a sampling experiment on the lander. Surveyor 3 lifted off from Cape Kennedy from launch complex LC-36B on April 17. 

An Atlas-Centaur booster used to place the Surveyor spacecraft on the Moon. This is the one from Surveyor-1. 

Surveyor 3 touched down on April 20, 1967, in the Mare Cognitum part of Oceanus Procellarum. It had a hard landing because the descent radar incorrectly calculated the altitude and shut the engine down early. It then bounced several times, as high as 10-meters on one bounce, eventually soft-landing and staying upright. Over the short time of its mission it took over 6,000 images to send to excited scientists on Earth.


One of the panorama-series of images taken by Surveyor 3.
 
The sampling arm on the spaceprobe made four short trenches in the soil. Each scoop would bring the sample up to a camera that would then take close pictures of the soil appearance and then transmit the images back to Earth.
Surveyor 3 is the most famous of the seven Surveyor missions, because of what happened during the Apollo 12 mission in 1969. Astronauts from Apollo 12 landed very close to the spacecraft (on purpose!) and retrieved several pieces for return to Earth and analysis. 
 

The camera from Surveyor 3, currently on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Center in Washington, D.C.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

China succeeds at first resupply spacecraft docking

Engineers helping to assemble the Tianzhou-1 robotic space cargo vessel.
 
On Thursday April 19, China took another step toward its goal of permanent Chinese presence in Earth Orbit, with the launch of a Long March 7 from the Wenchang Space Launch Center. Atop the rocket as the Tianzhou-1, China's first robotic resupply spacecraft. Looking very similar to the standard shape of international space cargo ships such as Cygnus, Japan's H-2, ESA's ATV, the Tianzhou-1 was set on an orbital approach to rendezvous with the Tiangong-2 space station.
Computer representation of Tianzhou-1 in orbit with power panels deployed.
 
Computer representation of Tianzhou-1 docking with the station Tiandong-2.
 
 The spacecraft rendezvoused with the station and docked successfully on Saturday the 22nd. With the main objective completed, engineers will study the combined craft operations and testing for two months. After that, Tianzhou-1 will undock and then begin a three-month period of orbital testing. Like many other cargo spacecraft, Tianzhou-1 is not designed to safely land back on Earth, but will eventually be de-orbited and burned up in the atmospheric re-entry.
 

Expedition 51 gets off to a busy start on ISS

Current docking arrangements on the ISS. (NASA)

Since the crew switch-over in mid-April, Peggy Whitson has been in command of the ISS and operational leader of Expedition 51. With the departure of Soyuz MS-02 earlier, that left three crew on the station to begin the Expedition 51 adventure: NASA astronaut (and station commander) Peggy Whitson, and flight engineers Oleg Novitskiy (Roscosmos), and Thomas Pesquet (ESA). While the crew awaited reiforcements from Earth, they continued biological and technical experiments, and important maintenance for an upcoming EVA on May 12. 

Once again spaceships left Earth to take supplies and new crewmembers to the station. First off the pad (LC-41) was Orbital ATK's Cygnus cargo spaceship, riding atop an Atlas V rocket, on Tuesday April 18. A couple of days later, on April 20th, SOyuz MS-04 blasted off from Baikonur carrying two new crewmembers, Fyodor Yurchikhin (Roscosmos) and Jack Fisher (NASA).

Last minute photos before the roll-out of the rocket that will carry them to orbit. Yurchikhin (L) and Fisher (R). (NASA)

The Cygnus cargo ship was already in orbit when the Soyuz blasted off the pad. But this time, unlike the previous several launches, there were no more new tests to do certifying the advanced Soyuz, so the craft entered a fast-track six-hour orbital path to the station. Cygnus was on a slow approach that would bring it to the station several days later.

The tried-and-true Soyuz arcs upwards on a fast trip to the station. (NASA)

Soyuz MS_04 arrives at the station (NASA TV)


Six hours later, at 7:18 am Mountain daylight time, MS-04 finally docked at the Poisk module on the ISS. Crewmembers began the seemingly long process of equalizing pressures and turning off the propulsion systems. Three hours later the hatches were opened and Expedition 51 had a total of five crew on board. This was Yurchikhin's fifth trip to the space station, and this was Fisher's first trip to space.
NASA TV image of Cygnus spaceship maneuvering into position after reaching the station.
 
 On Saturday the 22nd, The Cygnus spacraft had arrived at the station. Using the robotic arm, Peggy Whitson and Thomas Pesquet grappled the cargo ship and brought it to its docking port on the Unity module. The cargo ship was named the John Glenn, after the famous Mercury astronaut who had passed away last year. The cargo amounted to 7,600 pounds of supplies, fuel, air, and experiments. It will stay at the station for about three months while it is unloaded, and garbage stored back into it. 

On April 24, a special moment arrived for the station. Astronaut Peggy Whitson broke the record for US astronauts cumulative time in space, marking 535 days total on her several missions. During the day she received a congratulatory call from President Trump at the Whitehouse. Congratulations to Commander WHitson on this incredible achievement!

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Keeping up with the ISS

Current spacecraft docked at ISS. Seems kind of empty now that some spaceships have departed. NASA.

I've had a little gap in my space reporting since early March, but that included an excellent trip to the Kennedy Space Center. So let's see how mankind's orbiting outpost has been doing. Currently, there is only one robotic cargo vessel (Progress 66) and one crew vehicle (Soyuz MS-03) docked. Wait - isn't it more usual to have two crewed vehicles there?

Touchdown! Expedition 50 makes it back to Kazakhstan in a Soyuz capsule (MS-02).
 
Expedition 50 came to a close on April 10 when Commander Shane Kimbrough and cosmonauts Sergey Rizhikov and Andrey Borisenko left the ISS in Soyuz MS-02 and landed safely in the open steppes of Kazakhstan. That left Expedition 51 in charge of the station, with NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson n command supported by flight engineers Oleg Novitskiy (Roscosmos) and Thomas Pesquet (ESA). 
Peggy Whitson and Thomas Pesquet pose inside the BEAM inflatable module currently being tested by NASA, attached to the station.
 
Change of Command ceremony. L-R: Shane Kimbrough, Sergey Rizhikov, Andrey Borisenko, Thomas Pesquet, Oleg Novitskiy, Peggy Whitson.


Unmanned cargo spacecraft have also been on the move. The Dragon 10 spaceship was loaded with items for return to Earth and undocked on March 19. It re-entered the atmosphere and safely deployed a parachute, landing it in the Pacific Ocean for a quick recovery and return to SpaceX for evaluation. 

SpaceX artist rendering of the Dragon plunging through the atmosphere.

Before the conclusion of Expedition 50, there was another important spacewalk to continue preparations for the station to begin receiving Non-NASA manned spacecraft from Boeing and SpaceX next year. On March 30, Peggy Whitson and Shane Kimbrough completed a six-and-a-half hour EVA, connecting a computer relay box as well as connecting cables and wires on the Pressurized Mating Adapter -3 (PMA-3). During the EVA, Peggy broke a spacewalking record, making an eighth EVA by a woman astronaut.

Next week will see more cargo spacecraft and new cremembers arriving at the ISS.
 

Sunday, March 5, 2017

50 Years ago: FIrst steps towards the shuttle designs

SV-5D Lifting Body on display at the USAF Museum in Dayton, OH.
 
Fifty years ago, on March 5, 1967, the US Air Force made a second flight attempt in a series of experiments to test how a lifting body shape would control re-entry into the atmosphere. The first launch had been made in December of 1966, resulting in a crash of the test vehicle into the sea. On this second attempt, a lifting body (also known as the X-23 made by Martin Marietta) was launched atop an Atlas missile and the craft separated and simulated a re-entry. At Mach 2 a special designed parachute deployed to recover the vehicle, which was supposed to be picked up by a flying cargo aircraft which would grab the parachute.

X-23 atop an Atlas Missile before launch.
 
In the second flight, the parachute deployed but as the recovery aircraft flew by for inspection it noticed the proper parachute opening had not occurred, and so it would be dangerous to attempt an in-flight recovery. It was determined to allow the craft to descend to the sea for ship pick-up. Unfortunately the craft and parachute sank before the ship could arrive.
The third attempt on April 19 was a complete success. The parachute deployed properly, and the recovery cargo plane was able to snag the chute and bring the craft home. Although the craft was declared ready to be flown again, no further test flights with this design were made.
 
A view of the recovery cargo plane just before parachute capture.
 

Saturday, February 25, 2017

ISS: Busy Traffic Week


 Current Spacecraft positions on the ISS. Credit: NASA.

It was a very busy week for the crew of Expedition 50 on the International Space Station. In between station maintenance, science experiments, and preparations for future work, the crew needed to be on their toes dealing with all the intracacies of arriving robotic spacecraft.

Launch Pad 39B with the SpaceX Falcon rocket. Launch Control and the Vehicle Assembly Building seen in the background. SpaceX.

Events started with a roar on Sunday. From the historic LC-39B pad, SpaceX launched Dragon 10, their unmanned cargo spacecraft, on a mission to take supplies to the ISS. The launch went very well, and Dragon began its 2 day voyage to rendezvous with the station. 

First launch from Pad 39B since the retirement of the shuttle in 2011.

In a historic first, the Dragon 10 lifted off from its pad on the Falcon rocket as the first commercial rocket to launch from the famous pad 39, where decades earlier the astronauts flew the mighty Saturn Vs to the Moon in project Apollo, and then later when the space shuttles began their routine missions into low Earth orbit. This pad site has been modified from the shuttle operations to accept more commercially-operated designs. It is currently leased to SpaceX, which previously had been using the Pad 40 on the Cape Canaveral Air Force station. That pad was damaged in a Falcon Explosion in September of 2016. It is expected that future manned SpaceX flights will also take place from 39B.
Separation of Dragon-10 from the second stage. SpaceX.
 
In a further demonstration of their rocket prowess, the controllers of SpaceX carefully guided the first stage of the Falcon back through the atmosphere to a safe, upright landing at the landing pad on Cape Canaveral. The first stage will be examined, refurbished, and re-used on a future flight to help save funding. 
Dragon-10 approaches the pickup point.
 
Docking with the ISS proved to have some difficulties. As the spacecraft made its first approach to the ISS, a fault in the GPS tracking triggered an orbit of docking approach and the spacecraft was backed away from the station while engineers investigated the problem. A work-around was configured, and a second attempt the next day was successful. Astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Thomas Pesquet used the robotic arm to grapple and then dock the Dragon temporarily at the Node-2 docking port. They used cameras to record the outer condition of the Dragon for engineers to study later. Then the craft was moved to the Common Berthing Module.
Meanwhile, back in Russia...
 
In a nice daytime blastoff, the Russian space agency launched a Progress resupply spacecraft into orbit from the Baikonur facility. Known both as MS-05 and as Progress 66, the Soyuz-U rocket used a different third stage motor design than was used on the previous Progress MS-04 mission. That motor suffered a catastrophic failure in the oxidizer turbopump, which shredded the engine and lost the spacecraft in flight.
 
 Picture-perfect liftoff of the Soyuz-U rocket with Progress 66 aboard. Spaceflight Now.
 
After an 8-minute flight and stage separations, the Progress 66 ship was on its way to the station. The flight plan for this mission again called for a 2-day orbit path, giving engineers plenty of time to test and verify all functions carefully. The S-band uplink navigation system was able to complete its flight-certification, the last step in preparations to begin using the latest Progress design in the preferred single day orbital approach flight plan.
 
Progress 66 approaching the ISS, with its solar panels making a symmetrical wing-like appearance.
 
On Friday, the Progress 66 spacecraft reached its rendezvous point with the station and engineers carefully guided the vehicle into its docking position. The spacecraft completed its flight at the Pirs module docking port. This makes the 68th successful Progress mission to the ISS, delivering supplies and experiments to the station.
The next supply mission expected is the Cygnus mission on March 19.
 

Saturday, February 18, 2017

50 Years ago: Lunar Orbiters Scout for Landing Sites

Lunar Orbiter Engineering Mockup.
 
Fifty years ago, in February 1967, NASA pressed on with the preparations for the Apollo missions despite the recent deaths of the Apollo 1 astronauts. The purpose of the Lunar Orbiter spacecraft was to photograph potential landing sites for the Apollo missions expected to occur within the next few years. This particular spacecraft, Lunar Orbiter 3, blasted off from pad LC-19 at Cape Kennedy (Canaveral) on February 5, 1967. 
 
Lunar Orbiter 3's ride: Atlas-Agena D.
 
The Atlas rocket was basically the same as those which powered America's first orbital manned missions. The Agena second stage was a fueled and powered-up version of the Agena target vehicles used during the Gemini program. The orbiter itself was built at the Langley facility in Virginia, recently featured in the movie, "Hidden Figures."
Liftoff from Pad LC-19.
 
Blast off took place before dawn and the rocket lifted the Agena into position where its motors pushed the spacecraft fast enough to defeat Earth's gravity. The Orbiter reached the Moon on February 8. The camera recorded lunar images from February 15 to 23. Over 500 images were taken.
Image from Lunar Orbiter 3.
 
Image quality was very good, so much so that one image managed to pinpoint the landing spot for Surveyor 1. The spacecraft stayed in orbit in a gradually decaying orbit when it struck the lunar surface in October 1967.