Soyuz TMA-16M arrives at International Space Station

Following a six hour four orbit chase of the International Space Station (ISS) which began with a picture perfect launch this afternoon the Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft completed it’s journey with a successful docking.

The crews then performed leak checks to ensure the vehicles were correctly linked before opening the hatches allowing Gennady Padalka, Mikhail Korniyenko and Scott Kelly to return to the station they have all spent time on board before.

The crew then completed the traditional call back to their family and friends before settling in for their first night aboard the ISS.

While the crew members where travelling to the station another Soyuz rocket lifted off from French Guiana delivery two more Galileo satellites for Europe, full story can be found here.

Below is the hatch opening and welcome call video

ISS One Year Mission begins

The first one year mission on the International Space Station begun this afternoon with the launch of the Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

Following a smooth countdown the three crew members Gennady Padalka, Mikhail Korniyenko of the Russia Federal Space Agency and Scott Kelly of NASA lifted off at 3:42 p.m. EDT. Once in orbit the spacecraft deployed its solar arrays and antennas before performed the first of several burns to take it to the space station later today.

15156689690_305310f36d_kUnlike previous missions to the ISS Mikhail Korniyenko and Scott Kelly will not be returning to Earth aboard the TMA-16M vehicle but will instead spend a year on board the station and eventually return in March 2016 aboard the TMA-18M vehicle. During their time aboard the station the crew members will be subject to a number of tests to determine the long-term effects of working in space and while this has been done before aboard the MIR space station it is the first time aboard the ISS. However the experiments are not limited just to the two in space, Scott’s identical twin brother Mark Kelly a former NASA Astronaut will also be under going tests during the same time period. This will allow NASA a unique opportunity to study the differences between being on Earth and on ISS.

While a lot of focus for this mission has been on Korniyenko and Kelly, we shouldn’t forget that Padalka will be setting a record while on orbit, the most time ever spent in space.  The record of 803d 9h 39m, which is currently held by Russian Sergei Krikalev, will be passed by Padalka on 5th July this year.

While this isn’t the first time a human has spent a year in space, it has been 25 years since it was last done and technology has changed a lot since then allowing more in depth studies to be performed that were not possible then.

Below are screen grabs of the launch, we will post a follow up article this evening after the docking and hatch opening.

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The Little Rover that Could continues to impress

Opportunity Rover's Full Marathon-Length Traverse
Opportunity Rover’s Full Marathon-Length Traverse

Eleven years ago the Mars Opportunity Rover landed on the surface of the planet for a planned 90 sol (Mars day) mission, nearly 4000 sols later the rover is still operating.  This week it achieved a another significant milestone becoming the first rover to complete the equivalent of a marathon driving across the surface of the planet.  A milestone that may be hard to beat until Humans are working on the surface of the planet.

Unfortunately the future for the rover is unknown for a couple of reasons, the primary being we just don’t know how much longer it can last it has already operated for 44 times as long as designed and has recently had a software patch to get around a problem with the flash memory.

The other reason the future is in doubt is the 2016 NASA budget doesn’t include funding to continue the operations of the rover. While this was also the case in the 2015 budget congress added funding back so we can be hopeful that they will do the same again, however there is no guarantee.

So how has it lasted this long? There are a couple of answers to this, the first being that it is solar powered so as long as the hardware survives and the solar panels can receive sunlight it should be able to operate. Here is where Mars itself has helped the rover, over the 11 years of operation the power from the solar panels has dropped as dust accumulated on them and then been boosted again when a dust devil (add link) cleans the panels.

Another obverse answer is the rover was well designed, while the initial mission was for 90 sols the designers ensured the rover was capable of operating longer, personally I don’t know if they ever expected it to operate this long but it is a testament to good design and engineering that it has.

Why continue to fund it? Again there are a couple of answers to this, first it is still returning valuable data, there is no other vehicle in that region of Mars and everything it finds helps us to better understand the planet.

Second the longer it operates the more we learn about long distance remote operations of vehicles, unfortunately the older it gets the more issues are likely to occur, as these happen we will learn to adapt the vehicle to handle these issues until the time comes when it is not possible to do that any longer. When that happens the Rover will have completed an extraordinary mission and set some records that will be hard to beat.

To learn more about this amazing vehicle and see the numerous images it has returned on Mars check out the mission page.

Delta 4 launches latest GPS satellite

In the first of six launches scheduled over the next four days a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta 4 lifted off from Cape Canaveral carrying the latest Global Positioning Satellite (GPS).

The satellite is the ninth Block 2F to be launched and was successfully placed into orbit following the on-time launch.

Below are some screen grabs of the launch

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TurkmenSat 1 launch delayed

FALCON9-Thales-satellite-580The launch of the TurkmenSat 1 satellite has been delayed due to a problem with the launch vehicle.

Originally scheduled for 21st the Falcon 9 static fire test was planned for today. Waiting for word from SpaceX on when the new test will be performed.

SpaceX’s Gwynne Shotwell reported that it was due to helium pressure bottles on the Falcon 9, no word however on a new launch date.

Commercial Resupply Contracts 2

Last September NASA released a request for proposals (RFP) for a second record of contracts to resupply the International Space Station (ISS) through 2024. The proposals were due by November 14 with the awards expected in May this year. At the time of the RFP both Orbital Sciences (now Orbital ATK) and SpaceX were flying cargo missions to ISS, however in October the third flight of Orbital’s manifest suffered a catastrophic failure resulting in the lost of the vehicle and reducing NASA to a single supplier for most of this year. This has caused NASA to have to change what is flown on SpaceX missions to compensate for the lose.

With CRS2 it is expected that both Orbital and SpaceX supplied bids however they were not the only ones with Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Sierra Nevada indicating they have submitted bids.

There are definite advantages to increasing the field of suppliers to the ISS not least of which is the ability to better handle accidents during launch. Another advantage is beyond NASA and ISS as each new supplier brings competition to the market and longer team should help reduce costs for other customers. This will become increasingly important and we look beyond ISS (link). Depending on the supplier there will be other advantages too, if Sierra or Boeing are selected then there will be additional down mass from ISS something only SpaceX is able to offer today.

However there clearly are dis-advantages to having new suppliers too. Any new supplier would have to be certified to bring supplies to ISS, this will incur additional costs for NASA and the supplier. Also we don’t know when the other suppliers will be ready to supply the station, while the contracts are being awarded this May and are not due to start until 2018 they would still need to show progress to ensure NASA has the continue supply line they need.

There is also the concern that four of the five suppliers are launching their vehicles using Russian made RD-180/181 rocket engines, which with the political climate at the moment could prove to be a problem longer term. We know that United Launch Alliance (ULA) who will be providing launch services for three suppliers are planning to move away from the RD-180 engine, however this is not going to happen until at least 2019 and would require certification before actual launches could be performed, which ULA’s Tory Bruno has said could take until 2022-23, so almost the end of the CRS2 contract.

Check back in May to see who the contracts have been awarded to.

Beyond ISS – Part Two

Last time we talked about using the Bigelow modules for our international space station replacement.

Bigelow Expandable Activity Module
Bigelow Expandable Activity Module

Today we are going to take a detailed look at the Bigelow modules specifically the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) which is scheduled to fly to the International Space Station (ISS) later this year with the SpaceX CRS-8 Dragon launch.  Once it arrives at the station it will be removed from the trunk and attached to the station where it will be inflated to its operational size.

At present all the modules on the ISS are based on a fixed structure, on the US side of the station these were all launched in the cargo bay of the Space Shuttle and attached using a combination of the station and shuttles robot arms.  As the name implies the new module is expandable, from it launch size of 5.7 feet long and diameter of 7.75 feet it will be filled with air and grow to 12 feet long with a diameter of 10.5 feet.

It is scheduled to spend two years attached to the station during which time tests will be performed to determine how it stands up to the rigors of space.  Most of the time the hatch to the module will be closed, however the crew will access the module to perform additional tests.  At the end of the two years the module will be detached and ejected into space where it will burn up in the atmosphere.  Personally we would like it to stay on the station or be replaced by a bigger version at the end of the two years.

So why use an expandable module?  The biggest advantage of an expandable module is the reduced size during launch, while launch vehicles are getting more powerful it still costs a lot of money to get vehicles into space, by reducing the size the costs go down too.

Why hasn’t this been done before?  NASA originally planned to have an expandable habitat module, called TransHab, attached to the ISS. This was abandoned after congress banned NASA from continuing development due to raising costs.  The technology was then purchased by Bigelow who have launched two independent un-crewed vehicles based on the design.

How does it work?  Once the module is in space air will be used to inflate it to its full size, to allow this the outside of the module is made of a flexible material.  The core systemsnneeded for the module are located in the middle with the rest of the expanded space available for the crew to work in.

But what about space debris and micro meteors?  This is one of the biggest challenges faced by anything in space, to ensure the safety of the module and the crew inside the flexible material used for the outside of the module is made up of multiple layers.  For the TransHab module the protection was designed with successive layers of Nextel, a material commonly used as insulation under the hoods of many cars, spaced between several-inches-thick layers of open cell foam, similar to foam used for chair cushions on Earth. The Nextel and foam layers cause a particle to shatter as it hits, losing more and more of its energy as it penetrates deeper.  Many layers deep in the shell was a layer of super strong woven Kevlar to hold the module’s shape. The air was held inside by three bladders of Combitherm, a material commonly used in the food-packing industry. The innermost layer, forming the inside wall of the module, was Nomex cloth, a fireproof material that also protected the bladder from scuffs and scratches.

While we were not able to get too many details on the design on the Bigelow module we are assuming that most of these details are still accurate.

What next?  While the BEAM module is only planned to be attached to the ISS for two years that isn’t the end of the story.  Bigelow are already planning to launch there own modules some time after 2017 and we foresee this technology being used for more than just orbital stations.  As we reach out further into the Solar System we are going to need vehicles that can provide adequate space for the crew to live as they travel.

These module are not just limited to space application either, there is no reason why it couldn’t be adapted for applications on the Moon, Mars and other destinations.  The design would need to be slightly different as the fixed part of the structure would be placed on the ground and expanded above that.   In addition as materials get stronger and stronger the structure of the modules will also get stronger and provide better protection to the crews as they travel.



NASA’s MMS mission launched

Following a smooth countdown this evening NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) satellites launched aboard a ULA Altas 5.  The MMS mission consists of four spacecraft, that will be deployed into orbit later this evening following the second burn of the centaur, and will then begin to deploy there various instruments to allow them to measure the interaction of the magnetic structures around the planet.  The four spacecraft once fully deployed will fly in a pyramid formation allowing them to produce a 3D map of the interactions.

28_Mechanical.pptEach spacecraft carries identical instrument suites of plasma analyzers, energetic particle detectors, magnetometers, and electric field instruments as well as a device to prevent spacecraft charging from interfering with the highly sensitive measurements required in and around the diffusion regions.

The plasma and fields instruments will measure the ion and electron distributions and the electric and magnetic fields with unprecedentedly high (millisecond) time resolution and accuracy. These measurements will enable to MMS to locate and identify the small (1-10 km) and rapidly moving (10-100 km/s) diffusion regions, to determine their size and structure, and to discover the mechanism(s) by which the frozen-in condition is broken, the ions and electrons become demagnetized, and the magnetic field is re-configured. MMS will make the first unambiguous measurements of plasma composition at reconnection sites, while energetic particle detectors will remotely sense the regions where reconnection occurs and determine how reconnection processes produce such large numbers of energetic particles.

NASA have confirmed that the four spacecraft deployed successfully following the second burn of the centaur upper stage.

Below are screen grabs of the launch

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Soyuz TMA-14M lands

Following the undocking earlier today the three crew members on-board the Soyuz TMA-14M are now back on the earth.  For some reason communication was lost with the vehicle during the initial part of the return, however the tracking site in Egypt confirmed that things were on track once it established communications. Communications were re-established once they where through the atmosphere.

Once the spacecraft landed the rescue crews made there way to vehicle and started to offload the three crew members. Once the medical checks have been completed the they will fly to Karaganda where they will continue back to there respective countries.

We were not able to get any screen shots of the return due to the weather and communication issues.

Expedition 42 has ended

Front row are NASA astronauts Barry Wilmore (left), commander; and Terry Virts, flight engineer. From the left (back row) are Russian cosmonauts Elena Serova, Alexander Samoukutyaev and Anton Shkaplerov and European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, all flight engineers. Photo credit: NASA/Bill Stafford

The crew of the Soyuz TMA-14M undocked from the International Space Station today bringing to an end the Expedition 42 mission on the station. Astronaut Barry Wilmore and Cosmonauts Elena Serova and Alexander Samokutyaev spent 167 days aboard the station during which time they performed six EVA’s and saw the arrival of three cargo vehicles and departure of four.

During the spacewalks the crews prepared the station for the reconfiguration to allow the new commercial crew vehicles being built by Boeing and SpaceX to dock with the station, and the additional of a new inflatable module from Bigelow Aerospace.

The crew also spent a significant amount of time working on numerous experiments during there time on the station including on themselves.

Below are some images captured from the closing of the hatch. We will post a followup article once the crew has landed safely later today.

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