Wednesday, August 24, 2016

New website

The was the original blog or Orbital Velocity. It now exists for archive purposes. To view the brand new Orbital Velocity website, visit!

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

First commercial space station to launch in only four years

Image Credit: Bigelow Aerospace
Bigelow Aerospace partnered with the United Launch Alliance to launch their 330-cubic-meter expandable space habitat—the B330—using ULA's Atlas V rocket in the 2019-2020 time frame.

“We could not be more pleased than to partner with Bigelow Aerospace and reserve a launch slot on our manifest for this revolutionary mission,” Tory Bruno, ULA president and CEO, said in a news release. “This innovative and game-changing advance will dramatically increase opportunities for space research in fields like materials, medicine and biology. And it enables destinations in space for countries, corporations and even individuals far beyond what is available today, effectively democratizing space. We can’t begin to imagine the future potential of affordable real estate in space.”

The announcement is a first-of-its-kind partnership of two commercial space companies—one a launch provider and the other a space habitat company—working to develop human infrastructure in low-Earth orbit without the aid of any government. That isn't to say that the companies don't want to do business with governments.

The B330 is designed to be a completely self-contained space station. But, according to Robert Bigelow, the CEO of Bigelow Aerospace, he would like to see one attached to the International Space Station.

"We are trying to acquire permission from NASA to be able to locate a B330 on [the ISS]," Bigelow said, "If we're able to do that and have [a B330] be there, we are asking, also, that we be given consideration to be able to commercialize time and volume."

Image Credit: Bigelow Aerospace
Bigelow said this would be no different than having a 30-story building and trying to lease a number of floors. He continued the analogy by stating that maybe NASA could be an anchor tenant to this first B330 at the International Space Station.

This module, if attached to ISS, would increase the station's volume by 30 percent. The craft will support research in microgravity including, but not limited to, scientific missions and manufacturing processes. Bigelow also hopes that the module, and other free-flying versions of it, will support space tourism and be able to be used on missions that go beyond LEO to the Moon or Mars.

Transportation to these modules, be it at ISS or elsewhere, will be done by NASA's current crop of commercial crew providers. Bigelow believes that there is enough of a market to support four commercial transportation companies. He cited Boeing's CST-100, SpaceX's Crew Dragon, Sierra Nevada Corporation's Dream Chaser and Blue Origin's yet-to-be-unveiled orbital spacecraft.

The B330 is currently being developed. The companies will work together to develop the business construct, commercial product offerings and marketing plans. Only when the spacecraft design is proven and a market shown to exist will additional habitats be deployed in other locations.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

SpaceX: launching, landing and berthing into history

SpaceX's Falcon 9 launches the CRS-8 Dragon to the International Space Station. The
first stage of the booster would land on an ocean-going platform only nine minutes
later. Photo Credit: SpaceX
Over the last few days, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket, delivered a Dragon cargo ship to the International Space Station and, as a bonus, successfully landed the first stage of the booster on a platform in the Atlantic Ocean. It's safe to say that this was one of the best weeks in the NewSpace company's history.

On April 8 at 4:43 p.m. EST (20:43 GMT), the Falcon 9 rocket soared into the late afternoon skies at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. It carried the CRS-8 Dragon capsule—the first to launch since the ill-fated CRS-7 mission. It was a textbook launch.

A little over two minutes into flight, the booster's first stage had finished it's job and detached from the second stage, which fired and continued on to orbit. Then, the rocket did something the company has been trying for a while now: it turned around and slowed itself for a soft touchdown on an ocean-going platform.

The Of Course I Still Love You Automated Spaceport Droneship carried the first stage
back to Cape Canaveral on Sunday, April 10. Photo Credit: SpaceX
This was the fifth attempt at landing on an Automated Spaceport Drone Ship. All the others failed in some way (although one attempt only failed because a landing leg didn't lock into place). This flight, however, succeeded. It was a long time coming for SpaceX, as they had been testing and refining this process for the better part of two years now—not including the Grasshopper tests in Texas.

The atmosphere at SpaceX's headquarters in Hawthorne, California, was electric. This was the second time one of their first stage boosters was successfully recovered—the first at sea.

SpaceX has said they need to be able to land on both solid ground and the drone ships because of the high energy launch requirements on some payloads, such as those heading to geostationary transfer orbit or escape velocity.

Elon Musk, the company's founder said the firm hopes to re-certify and reuse the booster on a flight as early as June.

As if that accomplishment wasn't enough, SpaceX still had a mission to complete: sending the Dragon cargo ship to the space station. Right about the time of the first stage landing, the second stage had made it to orbit and released the space freighter.

Dragon approaches the International Space Station. Photo Credit: Tim Peake / NASA
Over the next two days, Dragon caught up with the space station. Finally, early Sunday morning, the capsule conducted its final approach to the orbiting laboratory.

Capture by the space station’s robotic Canadarm2 took place at 7:23 a.m. EDT (11:23 GMT) April 10 about 250 miles (402 kilometers) above the Pacific Ocean just west of Hawaii. Controlling the arm was Expedition 47 Flight Engineer and European Space Agency astronaut Tim Peake. He, along with NASA astronaut Jeff Williams, monitored the approaching vessel from the Cupola window.

“It looks like we caught a Dragon,” Peake said after capture.

Dragon, upper left, is berthed to the orbiting laboratory. Cygnus is seen on the lower
right attached to the Unity Module. This is the first time two commercial vehicles were
at the station at the same time. Photo Credit: NASA TV
Then, over the next two hours, ground teams controlled the arm to move Dragon from its capture point just 33 feet (10 meters) below the station to the Earth facing port of the Harmony module.

The command to automatically drive four bolts in the Common Berthing Mechanism connecting Dragon and Harmony was given at about 8:55 a.m. CDT (13:55 GMT). The stations computer rejected the command at first, but upon trying a second time, it accepted and the spacecraft was officially berthed to the ISS at 8:57 a.m. CDT (13:57 GMT)—some 40 feet (12 meters) from the OA-6 Cygnus cargo ship attached to the Unity module. This marked the first time two commercial vehicles were at the station at the same time.

The arrival of Dragon also marked only the second time in space station program history that six vehicles were docked or berthed to the outpost. The last time was in 2011 when Space Shuttle Discovery was docked with the complex on mission STS-133—that orbiter’s final flight. That was also the only time all of the originally planned government-owned vehicles (Space Shuttle, Soyuz, Progress, Japanese HTV, and the European Space Agency’s ATV) were at the station at the same time. 

This is the eighth Dragon to visit the space station. It is also the 84th uncrewed cargo ship and 170th overall mission to reach the orbiting laboratory. 

The hatch between the cargo ship and space station will be opened early Monday morning. In the next three weeks, Dragon’s 7,000 pounds (3,175 kilograms) of food, supplies, and experiments will be unloaded and dispersed throughout ISS. Additionally, the vessel will be reloaded with trash and unneeded equipment to be returned to Earth. 

On April 16, CRS-8’s most notable cargo, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module will be robotically removed from the unpressurized trunk of the spacecraft and attached to the aft port of the Tranquility module. It will be expanded sometime in late May. 

Dragon is expected to remain attached to the space station until May 1 of this year (2016).

Video courtesy of NASA TV

Monday, April 4, 2016

Experimental feature: Liquid crystals in space

Microscopic detail of liquid crystal islands tethered like necklaces when an external
electric field is applied near the very thin film surface. Caption and Image Credit:
Liquid Crystal Physics Group / University of Colorado Boulder
The crew aboard the International Space Station perform hundreds of experiments each year in nearly all fields of science. There is so much that goes un-reported in mainstream news. Because of this, Orbital Velocity makes an attempt to feature some of these studies.

OASIS: Observation and Analysis of Smectic Islands In Space

Since liquid crystals are used in display screens on TVs, clocks and laptops, scientists want to understand how microgravity affects these crystals' ability to appear as both a liquid and a solid.

Liquid crystals flow like a liquid, but contain molecules that are arranged in a specific pattern—like a crystal. In addition to being used in LCDs, they form in naturally occurring things, such as soap bubbles. The OASIS experiment looks at these bubbles
Expedition 47 Commander Tim Kopra works to install the OASIS experiment in the
Microgravity Science Glovebox. Photo Credit: NASA

When you look at bubble, you usually see iridescent colors on its surface. This layer of color—liquid crystals—has a thickness that varies and changes when water flows back and forth over the surface. It is the thicker place on the bubble that scientists are looking at. They look like islands and are referred to as smectic islands.

On ISS, the experiment will produce these smectic islands on bubbles. The thickness could be as thin as 6 nanometers. For comparison, the thickness of human hair is 60,000 nanometers.

In normal gravity, when the islands become larger, they slide to the bottom of the bubble and "layer" up. But that doesn't happen in space.
A detailed look at the OASIS Experiment Module. Image Credit: NASA

This is the first experiment of its kind done in microgravity. Investigators hope to use the information found to make better displays in space—potentially using the technology as a heads-up display in spacesuit helmets.

By better understanding the physics behind these liquid crystals, improvements can be made on Earth-bound LCD screens. Such improvements include improved color contrasts and response times.

This experiment was sent to ISS on April 14, 2015 aboard a SpaceX Dragon cargo ship. Crews conduct the study inside the Microgravity Science Glovebox, which is located inside the U.S. Destiny laboratory. The study is being lead by the University of Colorado Boulder.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Progress heads for the International Space Station

Progress MS-2 lifts off the pad at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. 
Photo Credit: NASA TV
A Soyuz rocket lofted a Russian cargo ship with 5,300 pounds of fuel, water and supplies bound for the International Space Station.

The craft, dubbed Progress MS-2, lifted off the pad at 10:44 p.m. local Kazakhstan time (16:23 GMT) at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Nearly nine minutes later, the spacecraft was in orbit gearing up for a two-day trek to the orbiting laboratory.

The capsule will automatically dock with the rear port of the Zvezda service module around 1:01 p.m. CST (18:01 GMT) on April 2. It is packed with 5,346 pounds of fuel, air, water and equipment to support the Expedition 47 crew.

Progress MS-2 will join two crewed Soyuz vehicles and another Progress attached to the Russian Orbital Segment of the ISS. Additionally, an Orbital ATK Cygnus recently berthed on the U.S. Segment. 

To make room for the new spacecraft, Progress M-29M was loaded with trash and undocked on Wednesday. It will remain in orbit until April 8 when it will be commanded to de-orbit over the South Pacific Ocean.

This is the second cargo ship in as many weeks to arrive at the orbiting outpost. The next cargo ship, a SpaceX Dragon, will launch on April 8 and berth with the ISS on April 10.

Video courtesy of NASA TV

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

China's first space station falls silent

An artist's rendition of Tiangong 1, left, being visited by a Shenzhou. Three of these
spacecraft visited the space station over the course of two years. Image Credit: China
National Space Administration
China has officially shut down the country's first space station, Tiangong 1, according to a story by the Xinhua News Agency.

It was reported last week that the China National Space Administration terminated the Tiangong 1 data service after an extended operating period of two and a half years.

Tiangong 1, which means "heavenly palace 1," was lofted into space by China's Long March 2F/G rocket in September 2011. It was designed as a test article to support the rendezvous and docking of crewed and autonomous spacecraft, as well as house crews for an extended period.

It only had one docking port, so it could not be serviced by cargo ships. The station saw three vehiclesone autonomous and two creweddock with the module over two years. The last crew left in the summer of 2013, and it has remained unoccupied since.

The decommissioned laboratory remains safely in its designated orbit, but it will eventually succumb to the effects of atmospheric drag and burn up once it falls low enough.

The station has helped Chinese scientists understand the construction and management of a space laboratory and paved the way for the next version, Tiangong 2.

Tiangong 2 is scheduled to launch in the third quarter of this year. It will sport two docking ports in order to be serviced in orbit. The first crewed mission to the outpost will be Shenzhou 11, which will carry two taikonauts (Chinese astronauts).

A new cargo ship, dubbed Tianzhou, will launch and automatically dock to the new outpost in early 2017.

Both Tiangong 1 and 2 aim to help China develop the required skills and technology needed to build a 60-ton multi-module space station by the early 2020s.

Video courtesy of Space Animation

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Cygnus arrives at, berthed to International Space Station

The S.S. Rick Husband approaches the capture position below the International Space
Station. Photo Credit: NASA
After three days of travel to the International Space Station, the fifth Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft to visit the outpost was captured and berthed to the station early Saturday morning, March 26, delivering 7,756 pounds (3,518 kilograms) of food, supplies, and experiments.

Once the spacecraft was about 33 feet (10 meters) below the station, NASA astronaut Tim Kopra, the commander of the orbiting laboratory, took control of the space station’s robotic arm to move in and grab the free-flying Cygnus. Capture took place at 5:51 a.m. CDT (10:51 GMT) when the cargo freighter and ISS were about 250 miles (402 kilometers) over the south Indian Ocean.

“We’re really honored to bring aboard the S.S. Rick Husband to the International Space Station,” said Kopra. “It recognizes a personal hero of so many of us and this will be the first Cygnus honoree who was directly involved with the construction of this great station.”

Tim Kopra and Tim Peake work in the Cupola module to grab the free-flying Cygnus
from space. Photo Credit: NASA
After capture, ground teams spent the next two hours maneuvering the spacecraft to just below the Unity module of the orbiting lab. Once Cygnus was only inches away from the Earth-facing Common Berthing Mechanism, fine-tuning of the alignment began.

Getting the spacecraft below the CBM into the Ready To Latch position took a little longer than usual. Ground teams told the crew that because the robotic arm was fully stretched out, the procedure had to take place a little slower.

During final RTL alignments, the space station’s ground track took it away from video downlink. This caused the operators on the ground controlling the robotic arm to pause for about 30 minutes.

About an hour behind the timeline, berthing finally took place at 9:52 a.m. CDT (14:52 GMT) while the station was flying over the Pacific Ocean just west of Mexico.

The hatch between the station and Cygnus was opened the next day on Sunday. The crew will now begin the long process of unloading the thousands of pounds of cargo on board the spacecraft.

File photo of the Previous Cygnus berthed. This photo was taken during a space walk
earlier in the year. Photo Credit: NASA
“As we accomplish our fifth Cygnus berthing to the ISS, we celebrate the completion of a primary mission objective for OA-6,” said Frank Culbertson, President of Orbital ATK’s Space Systems Group via a company-issued release. “Our flexible Cygnus spacecraft has a lot of work left to do. Following its stay at the ISS, and for the first time, we will undertake three experiments [on board] the unmanned spacecraft.”

The vehicle is expected to remain attached to ISS for about two months (55 days) before being loaded with trash and unberthed on May 20. After departing the vicinity of the outpost, Cygnus will remain in orbit for eight more days to conduct the Saffire experiment.

Saffire will help scientists and engineers understand how fires spread in large areas on certain materials.

Cygnus was the first of three planned cargo ship arrivals in the next two weeks. A new Russian Progress spacecraft will launch on March 31 and is scheduled to dock on April 2. Then a SpaceX Dragon will fly atop a “full thrust” Falcon 9 on April 8, before being berthed to the Harmony module on April 10.

Together, some 12 tons (10.8 metric tons) of cargo will be delivered in arguably the busiest time in the space station program’s history.

Video courtesy of NASA TV
Time lapse by Trent Faust

Read more work by Derek Richardson and others at Spaceflight Insider.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Cygnus cargo ship heading to International Space Station

The Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft launches atop a United Launch Alliance
Atlas V rocket from Florida. Caption and Photo Credit: NASA TV
The fifth Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo ship blasted into orbit atop an Atlas V rocket on Tuesday evening on a path to rendezvous and berth with the International Space Station during the early morning hours of March 26.

This spacecraft, dubbed S.S. Rick Husband, is carrying 7,756 pounds (3,518 kilograms) of cargo bound for the orbiting outpost. It was launched at 11:05 p.m. EDT into near perfect weather conditions on March 22 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Launch Complex 41. The Atlas V rocket was in the 401 configuration: a four meter faring, zero solid rocket boosters and a single engine Centaur upper stage.

Video courtesy of NASA TV

Flying with the thousands of pounds of food, supplies and equipment is the Saffire-1 experiment. It's goal is to test the spread of fire on certain materials. The setup is contained in it's own compartment and will only be tested once the cargo ship safely leaves the ISS some 55 days from now. It will be the largest purposely-set fire in space. The goal is to understand the spread of flames in microgravity.

Two more Saffire experiments will fly on subsequent Cygnus cargo ships.

Cygnus will arrive at the ISS on the morning of March 26. NASA TV will cover the rendezvous and berthing operations live at 5:30 a.m. EDT.

A file photo of the previous Cygnus to visit the International Space Station.
Photo Credit: NASA

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Yearlong crew returns to Earth

Scott Kelly gives a "thumbs up" just minutes after being extracted from the Soyuz 
capsule. Photo Credit: Bill Ingalls / NASA
Blazing through the atmosphere and landing on the steppe of Kazakhstan, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Korniyenko returned to Earth on the morning of March 2, 2016, after spending nearly a year at the International Space Station. 

Kelly and Korniyenko returned in the Soyuz TMA-18M with Sergey Volkov, who launched to the orbiting laboratory back in September and spent 181 days in space. The one-year duo were launched to the ISS on March 27, 2015 in Soyuz TMA-16M and subsequently spent 340 days in space—the longest single flight for an American and longest mission in the history of the ISS program. 

Over the course of their stay, they orbited Earth over 5,440 times and traveled more than 143 million miles (230 million kilometers). Additionally, nearly 400 experiments were performed in areas ranging from life sciences, robotics, biology and more. 

Kelly, who had been the commander of the space station since Sept. 5, 2015, relinquished his post to fellow NASA astronaut Tim Kopra on Feb. 29. 

“It’s kind of hard to believe that we’ve been here for two and a half months and it’s only a portion of Scott and [Mikhail’s] time here,” Kopra said after Kelly handed over command. “Special thank you to Scott. Thank you for your leadership. You’ve been such a great role model to us in every aspect—as a crew member and as a space station commander—so we’re very, very grateful.” 

Expedition 46 officially ended and Expedition 47 began when the Soyuz undocked at 7:02 p.m. CST on March 1 (00:10 GMT on March 2) from the Poisk module. Hatches between the spacecraft had been closed a few hours prior at 3:43 p.m. CST (21:43 GMT). 

Remaining on board the space station are Commander Kopra and Flight Engineers Tim Peake, from the European Space Agency (ESA), and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko. All three have been in space for more than 77 days. 

“We are very grateful to this crew, to you [Mikhail] and to you Scott,” Malenchenko said before hatch closure. “Thank you to the mission control centers in Moscow and Houston. Good luck guys and we’ll see you soon on the ground.” 
Photo Credit: Scott Kelly / NASA

After pulling away from the station, the first separation burn occurred when the Soyuz was 66 feet (20 meters) away. The spacecraft fired its thrusters again for a second burn just 90 seconds later. 

About two and a half hours after undocking at 9:32 p.m. CST (3:32 GMT), while 7.5 miles (12 kilometers) from the ISS, the crew commanded the Soyuz’s SKD engine to fire for four minutes and 49 seconds, slowing the spacecraft down by about 420 feet (128 meters) per second. With that, the vehicle and crew were on an intercept course with the upper atmosphere. 

Shortly before Entry Interface, 27 minutes after the de-orbit burn, the three modules of the Soyuz—the Orbital Module, Descent Module and the Service Module—separated. Only the Descent Module with crew is intended to return to Earth safely. 

The Soyuz began to skirt the atmosphere just after 10 p.m. CST (4:00 GMT) going 4.73 miles (7.62 kilometers) per second. They were about 62 miles (100 kilometers) above the Arabian peninsula. 

Just under seven minutes later, slowing down to 1.41 miles (2.28 kilometers) per second while still 20.7 miles (33.4 kilometers) high, the crew experienced their maximum gravity load of about 4.57 times the force of Earth’s gravity. 

“Doing OK, feeling the pressure, feeling the G’s,” Volkov said during descent. 

The spacecraft soared through the atmosphere, creating a trail of super-heated plasma around the capsule for nearly 10 minutes before slowing down enough for the first set of parachutes to deploy. 

That deployment came with the release of pilot chutes to pull the drogue chute out. The spacecraft and crew were just over 6 miles (10 kilometers) in altitude at this point, still going 695 feet (212 meters) per second. 

The drogue slowed the capsule to only 262 feet (80 meters) per second before the main parachute deployed. It’s surface area of 10,764 square feet (1,000 square meters) slowed the vehicle to about 21 feet (6.5 meters) per second. 

This slow descent lasted for about 10 minutes while the spacecraft and crew began to prepare for touchdown. 

First, the heat shield was jettisoned, which revealed the Soft Landing engines. Next, the cabin pressure was equalized with the outside. Finally, the crew seats, called Kazbek, were moved slightly upward relative to the horizon in order to absorb the shock of landing. 

As the spacecraft descended, the recovery team began to locate and track the capsule. Once the main parachute deployed, helicopters began a wide circle around the landing area. 

About one second before touchdown, the Soft Landing engines ignited in a momentary burst to cushion the final three feet (about one meter) of the crew’s journey. The official landing time was 10:26 p.m. CST (10:26 a.m. local Kazakh time, 4:26 GMT). 

The spacecraft landed upright. To prevent the parachute from dragging the capsule around, the line connecting the two was automatically cut, as planned. 

Once confirmation of touchdown occurred, the helicopters landed, and nearby all-terrain vehicles rushed to the capsule to begin the careful extraction of the crew. The first thing the search and rescue teams did was erect a ladder around the module. Then they opened the hatch at the top of the vehicle. 

Russian cosmonauts Mikhail Korniyenko, left, Sergey Volkov of Roscosmos, center,
and Expedition 46 Commander Scott Kelly rest in chairs outside of the Soyuz
TMA-18M spacecraft just minutes after they landed in a romote area near the town
of Dzhezkazgan, Kazakhstan on Wednesday, March 2, 2016.
Photo Credit: Bill Ingalls / NASA
The first to be extracted was Volkov, then Kelly and Korniyenko. They were individually lowered and moved to lawn-chair like couches nearby and given a blanket. Temperatures at the landing area were around 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius). 

“The air feels great out here,” Kelly said, “I don’t know why you guys are all bundled up.” 

Kelly, who last flew in space five years ago as part of the Expedition 25/26 increment in 2010 and 2011, told a medical officer that he didn’t feel much different than he did when he landed then. 

After the medical evaluations were complete, the crew was flown to nearby city Dzhezkazgan, where Kelly parted ways with Korniyenko and Volkov, before flying to their corresponding space agency's headquarters.

Video courtesy of NASA TV

Read more work by Derek Richardson at Spaceflight Insider.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Forever remembered: the crew of STS-107

The crew of STS-107. Photo Credit: NASA
This post will be rather quick. Over the last week, NASA held a number of remembrance events for the three biggest tragedies in the US space program's history: Apollo 1 in 1967, Challenger STS-51L in 1986 and Columbia STS-107 in 2003.

I am 27 years old. I wasn't alive when Challenger exploded, but I was for Columbia. Next to 9/11, it was the biggest news event of my life. I will never forget where I was when I learned of the break up of the Space Shuttle over Texas.

I had been interested in space since 1998 when I watched Discovery send John Glenn back to space. I watched it on TV, but the energy of that launch came through the set and into my soul. I loved it. 

But for the next four-and-a-half years, it was just another interest. I liked dinosaurs, Titanic, and architecture too. Columbia, however, did something to me that would change me forever. I realized that this was something that people were willing to die for. From that point on, I knew that whatever I did in my life, it would revolve around space in some way.

The legacy of the crew of Columbia is many things -- friendship, faith, comradery, science, exploration -- but I think their biggest legacy is the change in trajectory that ultimately happened at NASA. The agency, while it still has many flaws, is pushing outward.

I love the International Space Station. It is one of the greatest projects ever attempted. But, because of the end of the Shuttle program and the push for an exploration class rocket, the station has become more than just a research lab in low Earth orbit. It is a testing ground for long-duration missions. It is a place where private companies can do business, and it is our way-station to deep space.

I do believe these things would have eventually happened, with or without ISS or a tragic accident, but because of the crew of Columbia and their sacrifice, their memories will be honored by continuing to push the limits of the frontier.

May humanity never forget Rick Husband, William McCool, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon. Hail Columbia and her final crew.

Video Courtesy of NASA

Welcome to 2016

The view of the main pressurized modules of ISS from
 the astronauts during US EVA-35. Credit: NASA
Welcome to 2016. I know it is already February. It has been a busy last couple of months. I plan to expand the website this year, and get into better posting habits. But for now, here is my outlook on what to expect at our favorite palace in space.

This year, the International Space Station turns 16 years old—at least some of the pieces. This was the year that ISS program was originally supposed to end. In 2010, all five space station partner agencies decided to delay that to 2020. Even now, talks are underway to continue the life of the outpost to 2024.

Had the decision held to end the program, it is arguable that the burgeoning commercial cargo and crew industries would still be a decade or more away. Instead, today, active private cargo ships are routinely delivering supplies to the station. Next year, commercial crews will begin visiting the outpost. This year, Bigelow Aerospace, a company that develops expandable space habitats, will have it's first module attached to the ISS, and there are talks of a private airlock being added to ISS by 2018.

Instead of planning for the disposal the 400 ton satellite into the Pacific Ocean this year, mission planners are busy working on "traffic jams" of visiting vehicles constantly coming and going to and from the station. They do this all while working on training for more than a half-dozen spacewalks.

This year promises to be one of the busiest at the outpost. Starting in March, the first of up to five SpaceX Dragon cargo ships will be launched to resupply the orbiting lab. Commercial Resupply Service 8 will be a return to flight for SpaceX's Dragon cargo ship after a launch mishap in June of last year during the CRS-7 mission. The company already returned the Falcon 9 booster to flight in December.

BEAM seen attached to Tranquility's aft port.
Photo Credit: NASA
CRS-8 will haul with it the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM). Once the capsule berths to the Harmony node, the BEAM will then be pulled out of the "trunk" of Dragon by the space station's robotic arm and be attached to the aft port of the Tranquility module.

BEAM is a small test module that will study the structural integrity, leakage, radiation exposure and more, during its two year stay on the outpost. Afterwords, it will be removed and allowed to burn up in the atmosphere. Bigelow Aerospace intends to use a similar design for an airlock on it's eventual private space stations sometime in the 2020s.

SpaceX will launch International Docking Adapter 2 in March on CRS-9. This will be attached to Pressurized Mating Adapter 2 on forward end of Harmony. IDA-1 was originally supposed to be attached there, however, it was lost during CRS-7.

A replacement, IDA-3, will be launched on a future SpaceX Dragon flight. It will be attached to PMA-3. To prepare for that, it will be moved from it's current location (port side of Tranquility) to the zenith port of Harmony.

Cygnus OA-4 as seen from the ISS crew below
the station moments before being captured by the
space stations robotic arm.
Photo Credit NASA
The other company delivering cargo, Orbital ATK, recently returned it's Cygnus cargo ship to flight. This year, the company plans to launch three times. As early as late May, the OA-5 Cygnus mission should see the return to flight of the Antares rocket, which exploded shortly after liftoff in October 2014.

If the schedule holds, SpaceX and Orbital ATK should both have cargo ships berthed to the space station at the same time in late spring or early summer.

While commercial resupply is poised to have it's biggest year yet, the Russian's plan to continue their steady supply of Progress spacecraft. Three are scheduled to launch this year - all of which are of the new modernized MS variant. Additionally, Japan will launch it's HTV-6 cargo ship in October. In all, up to 12 resupply ships could reach the station in 2016.

In March, the first one-year crew members on the ISS are scheduled to return to Earth. Scott Kelly and Mikhail Korniyenko launched in late March 2015 and are scheduled to return to Earth on March 3, 2016. Also leaving with them will be Sergey Volkov, who launched in September 2015.

Launching a couple of weeks later, Soyuz TMA-20M will take Russian cosmonauts Aleksey Ovchinin and Oleg Skripochka as well as NASA astronaut Jeffrey Williams. They will stay aboard as part of Expedition 47 and 48 and return to Earth in September. This will put Williams about 14 days ahead of Kelly as the most experienced U.S. astronaut with a cumulative 534 days over four missions.

A new Soyuz model, called MS, will replace the
TMA-M series currently serving the space station.
Photo Credit: NASA
Following the departure of TMA-19M in June with Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and astronauts Timothy Peake and Timothy Kopra of ESA and NASA respectively, Expedition 48 will begin. Joining the expedition a couple weeks later will be the crew of a brand new Soyuz: Soyuz MS-1. Aboard will be NASA astronaut Kathleen Rubins, Russian cosmonaut Anatoli Ivanishin and Japanese astronaut Takuya Onishi. They will stay in space till November.

Launching on Soyuz MS-2 in September to be part of Expedition 49 will be NASA astronaut Robert Kimbrough and Russian cosmonauts Andrei Borisenko and Sergey Ryzhikov. They will land in March 2017.

Finally, in November, the 50th expedition to the orbiting outpost will launch. Soyuz MS-3 will carry NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy and French astronaut Tomas Pesquet. They will stay in space till May 2017.

So far in 2016, the ISS has seen one extravehicular activity. US EVA-35 saw astronauts Tim Kopra and Tim Peake step outside to fix a failed power regulator. The Sequential Shunt Unit, as it is called, failed in November and needed to be replaced at the earliest convenience.

The SSU was fixed, and other tasks completed as well, however, only a few hours into the spacewalk, water was discovered in Kopra's helmet forcing a "termination" of the EVA. The suit will be evaluated before used further.

This month, the ISS should see a Russian EVA, as well as the departure of the Cygnus currently berthed at the Earth facing port of Node 1.

A highlight video of EVA-35, which occurred on Jan. 15.
Video courtesy of NASA.