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.