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.