Thursday, May 05, 2016

Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex announces new summer highlights

Exploring space with new simulators and witnessing the thundering launch of a rocket are a few of this summer's highlights designed to educate and excite the public as NASA prepares for interplanetary travel, the Kennedy Space Center's Visitor Complex announced on Sunday.

Summer plans are in full swing as families look toward America's Space Coast for the excitement of the beaches, and the educational interest of the Kennedy Space Center. The next generation of space explorers are leaving their princess dresses and superhero outfits behind for flight suits and NASA caps to get an up close presence with the strong core STEM (Science, Technology, engineering and Math) values taught in school.

The warm space coast weather will give visitors chills of excitement as no less than eight major rocket launches are planned between June 1 and Labor Day weekend. The first rocket poised to lift-off is the massive Delta IV-Heavy on June 4 with a military payload on board. Space center visitors will be updated on launch times and given suggested locations to view each flight.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Atlas rocket lofts advanced Navy communications satellite

An Atlas rocket lifted off on Wednesday thundering into the predawn sky over Cape Canaveral successfully delivering an advanced U.S. Navy communications satellite into orbit.

The successful United Launch Alliance Atlas mission was delayed two days by the potential track of tropical storm Erika last weekend. ULA mission managers opted to delay the launch based on Saturday's forecast of heavy rain and winds over central Florida on Monday.
ULA Atlas V lifts off on Sept. 2. photo: Lockheed Martin

A beautiful plume and smoke trail left behind in the wake of the predawn launch caught the attention of nearby residents on their way out the door. As sunrise neared, the translucent column grew into space artwork captured by photographers on social media from South Carolina south to Miami. The translucent 'tadpole' plume was created earlier by the five nearly emptied rocket boosters plumes and a single main engine.

The Navy's fourth Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) spacecraft will join a network of satellites providing enhanced military communications across the globe, ULA officials said on Tuesday. The Lockheed Martin-built MUOS system will in partnership give military personal the ability to send and receive high-speed voice, video and data while in remote regions.

The massive 7.5 ton satellite will orbit over a fixed point 22,236 miles high providing military personal a faster response time transmitting and receiving data on their wireless device. The U.S. armed forces will share the communications constellation.

“The most dangerous part of a satellite’s life is launch and getting into orbit," Iris Bombelyn, vice president of Narrowband Communications at Lockheed Martin said following launch."I really want to thank our entire team whose hard work prepared MUOS-4 for this mission-critical event and the Atlas team who ultimately carried us safely to our transfer orbit. We look forward to completing our on-orbit health checks and delivering this important asset to the U.S. Navy and these new capabilities to our mobile forces.”

The four satellite constellation located in geo-stationary orbit will work with four ground stations linked together via a fiber optic network, Lockheed Martin Space Systems spokesperson Chip Eschenfelder stated post-launch. "The warfighter will be able to talk to each other around the world on a secured Navy network. It will be like a cellphone network tower in the sky, whether they are in the middle of the ocean or in the jungle," Eschenfelder added.

As the countdown clock reached zero, the Atlas 5 main engine ignited followed by its five solid fueled boosters at 6:18:01 a.m. EDT, sending the white and bronze rocket skyward. The launch illuminated America's Space Coast for a brief moment as Atlas ascended into the night sky, and quickly became a fast moving star as it gained speed high over the Atlantic waters.

Nearly two minutes later, the now empty boosters were separated as the 205-foot tall rocket continued toward space on the power of its RD-180 main engine. The core booster separated nearly five minutes into the launch, and the Atlas' Centaur upper stage's engine began with a series of three timed burns.

Processed and built at the Decatur, Alabama ULA facility, the Atlas 5 booster and Centaur stages provide the rocket's propulsion throughout the launch profile. The 106-foot strap-on boosters are processed by Aerojet Rocketdyne in Sacramento, California.

MUOS-4 separated on-time from the Centaur at 9:12 a.m. as the craft was orbiting over the eastern Indian Ocean south of Indonesia. The spacecraft is expected to operate for nearly 15 years.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

International crew launches on delayed space station mission

An international crew of three lifted off from Kazakhstan on Thursday  beginning a delayed five-month voyage of living and working aboard the International Space Station.

Time lapsed image of Soyuz July 22 launch. (NASA)
Russian Soyuz TMA-17M commander Oleg Kononenko, NASA astronaut Kjell N. Lindgren and Japan's Kimiya Yui launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome at the precise second launch site 1 was in alignment with the space station's orbit 250 miles above. The Russian-built Soyuz FG rocket engines ignited on time at 5:02:44 p.m. EDT (3:02 a.m. on Thursday, local time), illuminating the night as the rocket climbed a trail of fire and smoke over Kazakhstan.

This crew's mission was delayed two months in the wake of an ill-fated Soyuz launch with an uncrewed Progress M-27M station resupply craft on April 28. The Russian Space Agency ordered both an investigation into the launch mishap and grounded future station crews.

The Soyuz rocket is very similar to the crewed FG version giving the space community reason to delay upcoming launches. Following the successful July 3 Soyuz launch with Progress M-28M, Russia announced the go-ahead for the launch of the Expedition 44/45 crew. Russia has yet to disclose the exact cause of why the Progress lost communications with ground controllers and began spinning at a high rate following its separation from Soyuz upper stage.

As the Soyuz rocket pierced the dark sky its 930,000 pounds of thrust and flame gave spectators at the launch site a bright six point star. Meanwhile, inside the Soyuz, the crew watched a stuffed Star Wars R2D2 tethered to the craft's ceiling and used as a gravity meter.

Nine minutes later, the Soyuz separated from the rocket's third stage and began unfurling its twin solar arrays and deploy a communications antenna. One array deployed on time, however a second array did not deploy due to an unknown issue. Moscow's Mission Control radioed the crew of the stuck solar array and to proceed with docking.

As Soyuz arrived on orbit, the space station was 2,243 miles ahead of the spacecraft. The newly arrived crew began opening their visors and preparing Soyuz for docking.

The TMA-17M crew launched on a nearly six-hour fast track to the orbiting laboratory. The Soyuz is scheduled to slowly glide in and dock to the station's Rassvet module at 10:46 p.m. Ninety minutes later, crew members will ensure the connections between the Soyuz and the docking adapter are at proper air pressure and open duo hatches on either side.

This flight marks Lindgren and Yui first trip into space, and the third voyage to the space station for Kononenko who has logged 391 days in space. The new crew will join cosmonaut and station commander Gennady Padalka -- who holds the record for the most time in space by a human at 827 days and counting -- and the Year in Space duo of American Scott Kelly and Russian Mikhail Kornienko.
Soyuz crew members during lift-off. (ROSCOSMOS)

Lindgren, a medical doctor who was selected into the NASA astronaut corps in 2009, was born in Taiwan. His family moved to England and finally settled in the United States during high school. He joined the Air Force, soaring with the USAF Wings of Blue parachute team and attended colleges in Colorado.

"For as long as I can remember I've wanted to be an astronaut," Lindgren said. "I had this dream of becoming an astronaut, and I understood that the Air Force Academy was a good way to do that. And, so I decided that that's where I wanted to go that was my top choice and had the great fortune to be accepted there."

Yui, who also became an astronaut in the same year, piloted F-15 Eagle fighter jets as a member of Japan's Air Self-Defense Force. He served as an aquanaut during NASA's NEEMO 16 in 2012 inside the Aquarius Underwater Laboratory located 19 meters below the ocean's surface off Key Largo, Florida.

Kononenko, a civilian pilot and engineer who occupied the craft's center seat during launch, is beginning his third expedition aboard orbital outpost. In 2008 and 2012, the married father of two performed spacewalks outside the station.

Kononenko dreamt of "designing a space vehicle and then flying it. However it's hard to combine the two professions in real life," he said recently. "You can be a great designer and engineer or a cosmonaut -- I chose to be a cosmonaut."

The newly launched trio will follow into a new routine of science experiments, and taking and recording their own biological samples to be returned to Earth on a future spacecraft. "The ongoing collection of biological samples from crew members help scientists determine if immune system impairment caused by spaceflight increases the possibility for infection or poses a significant health risk during life aboard the space station," NASA spokesperson Mark Garcia said on Wednesday.

Monday, July 13, 2015

NASA New Horizons historic flyby of Pluto underway

New Horizon images of the icy dwarf planet Pluto. (NASA)

After traveling over three billion miles a small NASA spacecraft is making a historic fly-by of the icy dwarf planet Pluto and returning the first up close images and science data ever recorded.

Soaring at the edge of our solar system at 30,802 m.p.h., New Horizons closest approach to Pluto occurs at 7:49 a.m. EDT on Tuesday. However, new color images and scans of the small planet by a host of science instruments have already giving scientists a fresh look at the size of the unknown celestial body.

(NASA is live streaming video and images of the Pluto encounter here. You can also have real time access to exactly where the space craft is here. Follow the mission on social media via #PlutoFlyby.)

New Horizons mission scientist Bill McKinnon stated on Monday that the decades old debate on the size of Pluto has been answered -- 1,473 miles in diameter. "The size of Pluto has been debated since its discovery in 1930. We are excited to finally lay this question to rest,” McKinnon added.

New images are making NASA scientists grin. "For the first time on Pluto, (new) views reveals linear features that may be cliffs, as well as a circular feature that could be an impact crater," NASA Spokesperson Tricia Talbert discussed on Monday. "Rotating into view (above) is the bright heart-shaped feature that will be seen in more detail during New Horizons’ closest approach."

Pluto (right) and its moon Charon from New Horizons (NASA)
The size of three of the planet's five moons were also discovered, including its largest moon Charon at 751 miles. McKinnon said that the moon's atmosphere does not have a substantial atmosphere.

NASA is referring to Pluto and Charon as the "dynamic duo". Principal Investigator Alan Stern of Boulder, Colorado explained, “These two objects have been together for billions of years, in the same orbit, but they are totally different."

Pluto's smaller moons Hydra and Nix -- 30 miles and 20 miles in diameter, respectively -- likely have icy surfaces giving the two a brilliantly light surface as seen from a distance. These two moons were discovered in 2005 during an observation by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Record setting space flight touches down in Kazakhstan

An American, Russian and Italy's first female astronaut safely returned to Earth on Thursday following a one month delay which gave the crew a record setting extended spaceflight.

Soyuz commander Anton Shkaplerov of Russia, NASA astronaut Terry W. Virts and Samantha Cristoforetti of European Space Agency undocked their Soyuz TMA-15M craft from the International Space Station and steered it to a pinpoint landing in central Kazakhstan. The space trios returned capped a 200-day space voyage which covered 84.2 million miles.

The crew's departure was delayed following the April 28 malfunction of an unmanned Russian Progress supply craft after reaching orbit en route to dock with the space station. "Their return date was delayed four weeks to allow Russia to investigate the cause of the loss of the unpiloted Progress 59 cargo ship in late April," NASA spokesperson Dan Huot said.

The delay allowed Cristoforetti to become the new record holder with the most time in space by a female on a single spaceflight. The Italian astronaut also now holds the record for the longest spaceflight by a European astronaut.

With Shkaplerov at the controls of the Soyuz craft, the departing crew undocked on time at 6:20 a.m. EDT, from their home in space for the last 199 days. Two minutes later, Soyuz began a series of separation burns to guide the craft toward its proper attitude for reentry.

As the Soyuz sailed upon the ocean of space 12 Km away from the orbital outpost, comical chatter between the crew members broke the tension as they strapped into their seats. Looking out the Soyuz windows, Virts pointed out to Cristoforetti they were passing high over Easter and Christmas Islands, and wondering aloud if there is a "Labor Day or Columbus Day Island" too?

As the crew raced a line of thunderstorms near their landing site in central Kazakhstan, the Soyuz was split into three sections with the crew in the descent module. Minutes later, the module then began its firery reentry back into the Earth's atmosphere and protecting its crew from temperatures of 2500 degrees Fahrenheit.

As eight Russian MI8 helicopters flew around the landing site, the Soyuz touched down about 93 miles southeast of Jezkazgan at 9:44 a.m. "It was a text book homecoming for the Soyuz" crew," NASA spokesperson Rob Navis commented.

Fifteen minutes later and with the Sun setting on the desert landscape, ground technicians placed a support ladder around the craft and began to open the hatch to begin extracting the crew. Shkaplerov left the Soyuz in great spirits followed by Cristoforetti and Virts.

The on-time landing occurred 48-hours following an unplanned thruster firing by the Soyuz engines causing the space station to shift into a new orientation. "Thrusters on a Soyuz spacecraft inadvertently fired Tuesday morning momentarily changing the station’s orientation," NASA spokesperson Mark Garcia explained on Wednesday. "Russian flight controllers quickly corrected the situation."

The next space station crew will lift-off no earlier than July 23 to join the orbiting outpost's current three person crew of NASA's Scott Kelly, Mikhail Kornienko and station commander Gennady Padalka, both Russian cosmonauts. Kelly and Kornienko are 76 days into their historic year in space mission, and are scheduled to land in Mid-March.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

European Ariane 5 launcher delivers satellites to orbit

The 79th flight of Europe's Ariane 5 lifts-off on May 27 from Kourou. (arianespace)

A massive European rocket lifted off from the edge of the Amazon Forest on Wednesday to deliver a pair of commercial broadcast satellites for DirecTV and SKY Mexico.

The direct-to-home telecommunications satellites, DirecTV 15 and Sky Mexico 1, were successfully placed into special transfer orbits. The two spacecraft will be maneuvered over the next week into its proper orbit.

"DIRECTV 15 will provide additional digital television entertainment services for more than 20 million DIRECTV customers in the United States," Astrid Emerit, spokesperson for Airbus Defense and Space said.

SKYM-1 will add a larger coverage map for Mexico's pay-TV provider, Sky, a sister company to DirecTV. The spacecraft will expand HD broadcast channels for customers in Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America.

The Ariane 5 heavy lift launcher thundered into the cloudy skies from its launch site in Kourou, French Guiana at 5:16:07 p.m. EDT (6:16 p.m. local time), and seconds later began to dart out over the Atlantic waters.

Two minutes later, the rocket's twin boosters separated on time, meanwhile Ariane's core Vulcain engine continued to push the rocket higher.

DirecTV 15, which rode to orbit in the top of the two satellite stack, was deployed at 5:43:54 pm high over eastern coast of central Africa. Ten minutes later, SKYM-1 separated from the Ariane's upper stage -- both satellites beginning an expected 15-year life on orbit.

“DIRECTV 15 is not just the 100th telecommunications satellite we have built for geostationary orbit it is also the most powerful television broadcasting satellite ever built in Europe, the most powerful used in the USA and our 8th satellite to use electric propulsion for station-keeping,” François Auque, Head of Space Systems, stated on Monday. “This launch once more highlights the expertise and competitiveness of Airbus Defence and Space as the prime contractor for both the DIRECTV 15 satellite and the Ariane 5 launcher.”

Thursday, May 21, 2015

American resupply craft returns space station science home

A commercial resupply craft departed the International Space Station on Thursday and wrapped up a historic month in orbit with a successful splashdown of the coast of California.

Loaded with 3,120 pounds of science equipment and biological samples, the Dragon supply ship was undocked by astronauts using the space station's robotic arm and then released at 7:04 a.m. EDT. The craft then maneuvered away with a series of burns to guide the craft into position to leave Earth orbit.

The Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) completed its sixth resupply mission for NASA as the Dragon capsule performed an on time landing at 12:42 p.m., upon the Pacific waters 155 miles southwest of Long Beach. SpaceX released an observation report that the craft made a pinpoint splashdown.

Dragon is the world's only uncrewed spacecraft able to both deliver scientific experiments and return them safely to earth. Only hours following splashdown, Dragon had been plucked out of the water and placed on the deck of the boat for its trip home. The multiple experiments had also been removed for their return to Texas.

"The returning Space Aging study examines the effects of spaceflight on the aging of roundworms, widely used as a model for larger organisms," NASA spokesperson Kathryn Hambleton said on Thursday. "By growing millimeter-long roundworms on the space station, researchers can observe physiological changes that may affect the rate at which organisms age. This can be applied to changes observed in astronauts, as well, particularly in developing countermeasures before long-duration missions."

The successful flight keeps the company on track for both it's future supply missions to deliver fresh cargo to the orbiting outpost, and the first crewed launches beginning in 2017. The flight marked the sixth of 15 planned flights designed to ferry supplies to the station.

The next Dragon resupply mission is planned for June 26 at 11:09 a.m. a top a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla. The launch team will try again to attempt an on target landing of the Falcon's first stage aboard a floating platform of the Florida coastline.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Air Force X37B space plane begins fourth mission

An unmanned U.S. Air Force space plane lifted off from America's Space Coast on Wednesday a top a United Launch Alliance Atlas rocket beginning the programs fourth experimental flight.

This new mission is the second flight of the second autonomous Boeing-built X-37B spacecraft which will spend at least a year soaring around the planet approximately 400 miles above. Today's launch also marks the fourth X-37B mission to test new technologies and spacecraft systems in orbit.

Under an blue skies , the Atlas 5 rocket's core engine ignited as the countdown clock reached zero, lifting off on time at 11:05 a.m. EDT. A second later, nearly 870,000 pounds of thrust pushed the rocket and it's historic military payload off it's seaside launch pad and out over the Atlantic waters.

The delta winged spacecraft later separated from the Atlas' Centaur upper stage nearly twenty minutes into the flight. As the X-37B navigated away  the upper stage, The belly of the vehicle is protected with a black thermal protection system designed by NASA. Aligned with protective black and white thermal tiles, the mini space shuttle has a wing span of 14 feet, 11 inches from tip to tip.

“ULA is honored to launch this unique spacecraft for the U.S Air Force,"said ULA Vice President for Atlas Jim Sponnick on Wednesday. "Congratulations to the Air Force and all of our mission partners on today’s successful launch! The seamless integration between the Air Force, Boeing, and the entire mission team culminated in today’s successful launch of the AFSPC-5 mission."
Riding into Earth orbit with the X-37B was a payload consisting of ten science investigative CubeSats designed by both NASA, U.S. Naval Academy and the California Polytechnic State University. The mini satellite payloads were stored in chambers and attached to the lower section of the Centuar stage near its engine nozzle.

The payloads will look into many fields including the first satellite designed as a UNIX Web server in space using "common TCP/IP Internet protocol accessible to any Internet user," according to the National Reconnaissance Office  "The U.S. Naval Academy will also be comparing the Internet speed of the space-based network versus terrestrial networks."

Following an undisclosed flight time, the space plane is expected to touchdown in late-2016 at its prime landing site in California. Once the Air Force brings the reusable space plane home, it will reenter just like the space shuttle and aim for a touchdown on runway 12 at Vandenberg, AFB, located northeast of Los Angeles.

Lt. Col. Troy Giese, the OTV systems program director said, "Upon being given the command to return to Earth, the X-37B will automatically descend through the atmosphere and land on the designated runway. There is no one on the ground with a joystick flying it." If weather or technical issues arise on landing day, then Edwards, AFB will be called up with it's longer runway.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

American-Russian crew to begin historic year in space Friday

Scott Kelly, Gennady Padalka and Mikhail Kornienko pause a week before launch. (NASA)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- American astronaut Scott J. Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko are poised to lift-off from western Kazakhstan on Friday en route to begin a historic flight aboard the International Space Station as they spend one full year in space.

No American has spent greater than seven months in space on a single flight. NASA and the Russian Space Agency hope to determine how the human body can fight the environment of space and the lack of gravity to avoid decreased strength in both muscles and bone density, and levels of radiation exposure caused by solar flares.

"Some day we're gonna go to Mars, and we have the facilities on board the space station to really study the effects of space on longer duration space flights," Kelly said from the Kazakhstan launch site. "Having the capability that the International Space Station provides to study the human element of this is going to be significantly better than before."

Russian Valeri Polyakov endured a record 438 days in space on a single mission beginning in 1994. He and three fellow cosmonauts are the only humans who have spent a full year or more in space during a space mission.

"Kelly and Kornienko will spend a year on the space station to better understand how the human body reacts and adapts to the harsh environment of space," NASA spokesperson Stephanie Schierholz said. "Data from the expedition will be used to determine whether there are ways to further reduce the risks on future long-duration missions to an asteroid and eventually Mars."

As Navy Capt. Kelly spends one year in earth orbit, he and his identical twin brother Mark Kelly on Earth will take routine biomedical samples at about the same time. NASA scientists will use their fluid and cell samples to compare and contrast the human body's reactions to life in microgravity and the harmful radiation which surrounds the orbiting laboratory.

"Data and samples will be collected throughout the year from a series of studies involving Scott and his twin brother, Mark," Schierholz added. "The studies will compare data from the genetically-identical Kelly brothers to identify any subtle changes caused by spaceflight."

Kelly and Kornienko and cosmonaut Gennady Padalka are due to launch from Baikonur Cosmodrome at 3:42 p.m. EDT (1:42 a.m. on Saturday local time) riding a top a Soyuz FG rocket. Nine minutes later, the trio will arrive in Earth orbit and begin steering their Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft on an expedited trip to dock with the space station nearly six hours later.

Soyuz commander Padalka will guide their craft as they rendezvous and dock to the station's Poisk docking port four orbits following launch at 9:36 p.m. The hatches between the two spacecraft is expected to open about 90 minutes later allowing the new space trio to float into their new home greeted by current space station commander and NASA astronaut Terry Virts, Russian Anton Shkaplerov and Italy's Samantha Cristoforetti.

"We have certain phenomena that result from long duration space flight, and currently this new risk we have is the effect on our vision," Astronaut Kelly explained recently at the Johnson Space Center. "A lot of the science that is devoted to Mikhail and I as crew members are along those kind of lines -- your physical performance, your ability to function once you get back on Earth after such a long duration in space."

Kelly, who was in attendance and recognized by President Obama during the State of the Union address in January, will begin his expedition as a flight engineer for the first two-thirds of his flight. Kelly will then become commander in September, his second tour as the space station commander, a title he will hold until his departure.

During Kelly and Kornienko's year in space, they will participate in the relocation of two docking ports and the installation of two new International Docking Ports. Kelly will participate in a series of spacewalks to install the first new docking adapter this summer.

"The challenge for these guys is they're basically living in their office for an entire year," Emily Nelson, NASA Lead Flight Director for Kelly's final four months in space, said. "They're consummate professionals, they're going to do their job well from beginning to end... Those last four months, that's going to be one of our challenges is making sure we keep it upbeat and fun."

Following 51 weeks in space, Kelly and Kornienko will board the newer Soyuz TMA-18M craft with cosmonaut Sergey Volkov for their return trip to Earth, landing three hours later in central Kazakhstan.

Kelly's 180 days in space during three previous space flights added to next March's newly completed 342 days will give the astronaut the new American record of most time in space at 522 days. A record which may be short lived as NASA's Peggy Whitson will add nearly six months to her already cumulative duration of 377 days in space when she returns from her  stay aboard the space station in May 2017.

You can follow Kelly's long duration mission as he shares tweets each day from space via @StationCDRKelly. "I felt like it would be interesting to do that in space," Kelly said. "One 140-character message a day, 'hey this is what I'm doing, this is how I'm feeling'. I'm not sure if I'm gonna be successful doing it everyday

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Space station crew touchdown safely in foggy Kazakhstan

Russian Soyuz craft descends to a March 12 landing with a crew of three. (NASA)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- An American and two Russians touched down with a thud upon the snow-covered desert of central Kazakhstan on Thursday after spending 167 days living and working aboard the International Space Station.

Dense fog over the landing site delayed official confirmation of the spacecraft's landing for six minutes. Meanwhile, recovery crews were racing to locate the craft and relay word back to mission control in Moscow.

Outgoing space station commander and NASA astronaut Barry "Butch" Wilmore, and cosmonauts Alexander Samokutyaev and Elena Serova returned to Earth aboard the same the Soyuz spacecraft in which they launched aboard last September 26.The space trio completed over 2,600 orbits of their home planet having traveled 70.7 million miles.

Wilmore departed the station just a week following the completion of three spacewalks with fellow astronaut Terry W. Virts. Virts assumed command of the space station from Wilmore during a traditional ceremony on Tuesday. Meanwhile, Serova became the first Russian woman to board the orbital complex during her flight -- only the fourth Russian female to ever fly in space.

The crew's arrival home began three hours earlier with a flawless undocking from the outpost's Poisk module at 6:44 p.m., as the two spacecraft soared 257 miles above northern Mongolia. The international trio left behind the station's new Expedition 43 crew members of Virts, Italian Samantha Cristoforetti and Russian Anton Shkaplerov.

Minutes following the departure, Virts rang the station's naval bell and radioed, "Soyuz TMA-14M departing". The new station commander then radioed the free-flying Soyuz, "To the crew of Soyuz TMA-14M, soft landing guys, and we will see you on Earth in a few months."

As the Soyuz sailed for one final Earth orbit on the ocean of space, Samokutyaev aligned the craft for it's nearly five minute burn at 9:16 p.m. to drop them out of orbit. Twenty minutes after the burn, pyrotechnical explosives separated the three section Soyuz allowing the crew section to move away in time for the 2,500-degree Fahrenheit fiery re-entry three minutes later.

Samokutyaev guided the Russian launched Soyuz spacecraft down to a pinpoint landing at 10:07 p.m. EDT on Wednesday (8:07 a.m. local time, Thursday), about 65 miles southeast of Dzhezkazgan, Kazakhstan. As the Soyuz came to a stop on the snow laden region 26 minutes after sunrise, Russian MI-8 military helicopters and vehicles began racing toward the tired space crew.
Up next is the March 27 Soyuz TMA-15M launch with American Scott Kelly and Russian's Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka. Both Kelly and Kornienko will spend a full year aboard the space station gathering bio-medical information on themselves to test the effects of space and microgravity on the human body.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

NASA readies station for commercial dockings as Russia plans departure

Two spacewalking astronauts continued with jobs outside the International Space Station on Wednesday to prepare the orbiting outpost for a pair of new docking adapters arriving this summer.

Space station commander Butch Wilmore and Terry Virts switched their spacesuits to internal power at 6:51 a.m. EST, ahead of leaving the station's Quest airlock, beginning the second of three planned spacewalks during an eight day stretch. The duo quickly went to work beginning the nearly seven hour spacewalk by moving over to their work site -- a former space shuttle docking port.

Wilmore and Virts first removed a thermal cover from the former shuttle docking module in preparation for the June arrival of the first of two new International Docking Adapters (IDA). IDA-1 will be attached to the older docking module also known as Pressurized Mating Adapter 2 during a spacewalk in July. Both IDA's are due to launch from Cape Canaveral a top separate SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets tucked inside the Dragon 7 supply craft.

"Boeing built the two new docking adapters... Boeing’s Crew Space Transportation-100 and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon will use the adapters to deliver astronauts to the space station later this decade," NASA spokesperson Mark Garcia stated during today's spacewalk.

IDA-2 will launch two months later and then installed to PMA-3. The PMA-3 will first be moved from its current location and over to the space-facing side of the American Harmony module this summer. NASA has confirmed, "SpaceX is targeting its new Crew Dragon spacecraft to make an uncrewed flight test in late 2016 and a crewed flight test in early 2017."

The six hour spacewalk also featured several housekeeping chores by the spacewalking duo including lubricating the 57-foot robotic arm's latching end-effector, and rigging two final power and data cables over to PMA-2.

Virts stood on a special platform on the station's truss as he placed a special lubricate on the ball screws and bearings near the snares on the hand section of the Canadian-built arm. As Virts worked outside, station crew mate and Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti worked from inside the Cupola module slowly moving the robotic arm and its wrist joint into position for Virts.

"We were the cable guys, and now we're the Grease Monkeys," Wilmore commented as the spacewalk wrapped up.

The same two astronauts will step outside for a third time on Sunday to complete several more tasks in anticipation of the new docking adapters. NASA TV will provide live coverage of the orbital walk beginning at 6:00 a.m.

As Wednesday's American spacewalk began, the Russian Space Agency announced new plans to conclude their presence at the space station in 2024. ROSCOSMOS chairman of manned space flight Yuri Koptev announced early Wednesday plans to separate several of their science and docking modules in nine years to form a new Russian-based space station.

"The concept involves the use of the ISS until 2024, and then plan to create a Russian space base on the basis separated from the ISS modules," the Russian Space Agency said in a new press release. "Configuration of multipurpose laboratory module, nodal module and scientific power module to create a promising Russian space station to meet the challenges of providing secure access to the Russian space."

ROSCOSMOS added their interest in landing a Russian on the Moon beginning in 2030, "Russia will target study of the moon using unmanned spacecraft to lunar orbit and the surface of Earth's natural satellite. At the turn of 2030 and will be out for manned missions to the moon." The release also mentioned plans to "implement programs of deep space exploration".

Saturday, February 21, 2015

"Cable Guys" prepare space station for new docking ports

Astronauts spacewalk to prepare the space station for docking ports. (NASA)
The first of three spacewalks to prepare the International Space Station for the arrival of future commercial spacecraft wrapped up on Saturday after astronauts strung new cables in preparation for two new docking ports launching this year.

NASA astronauts Barry "Butch" Wilmore and Terry Virts completed a six hour, 41 minute assembly spacewalk at 2:26 p.m. EST, having laid out eight of the 10 electrical and communication cables in preparation for the arrival of the ports.

Nicknamed the "Cable Guys" by NASA controllers, Wilmore and Virts "rigged a series of power and data cables at the forward end of the Harmony module and Pressurized Mating Adapter-2, and routed 340 of 360 feet of cable," NASA spokesperson Mark Garcia stated at the conclusion of the spacewalk.

The astronauts will pick back up in a few days, and plan to finish the necessary tasks with a third orbital stroll next Sunday, March 1. "The duo will venture outside the space station again on Wednesday to deploy two more cables and lubricate the end of the space station’s robotic arm," Garcia added.

Two Boeing-built International Docking Adapters (IDA) are due to arrive to the orbital outpost this summer and fall. The first IDA is at the Kennedy Space Center with the second adapter wrapping up construction near Houston. Each adapter will allow a visiting crewed commercial spacecraft to perform a soft-dock arrival to space station.

Each 1,150-pound adapter will be tucked inside a Dragon cargo craft's trunk launched a top two SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets. The adapters will require several spacewalks to mate each to the station, and then connect the power and communication cables which are being laid out during these three spacewalks.

Wilmore is the current space station commander, and performed one previous spacewalk last October. Saturday's walk in space marked Virts first time outside a spacecraft. Astronauts and cosmonauts have spent a combined 1,159 hours during 185 spacewalks conducting space station assembly and maintenance jobs.

The spacewalk was delayed by one day to give both flight controllers and the astronauts a break following an exhaustive week in troubleshooting the two spacesuits for contamination of its cooling system. Issues with previous spacesuits forced NASA to return them to Earth aboard a Dragon supply craft for analysis and checkout.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

SpaceX rocket launches DSCOVR solar observatory

SpaceX Falcon 9 lifts-off on February 11 from Cape Canaveral. (SpaceX)

A U.S. government spacecraft designed to study the solar wind and warn of harmful solar flares heading towards Earth launched into the sunset sky on Wednesday aboard a commercial rocket from America's Space Coast.

The $340 million Deep Space Climate Observatory, or DSCOVR, is the first deep space weather mission operated by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and is in partnership with NASA and the Air Force. The 1,250-pound satellite carries five science instruments designed to record the output of solar radiation from the Sun and its effect on Earth.

"DSCOVR will serve as our tsunami buoy in space giving forecasters up to an hour warning on the arrival of the huge magnetic eruptions from the Sun that occasionally occur called coronal mass ejections," said Dr. Tom Berger, NOAA space weather prediction center director said on Saturday. "CME's are the cause of the largest geomagnetic storms on Earth some of which can severely disrupt our technological society causing loss of communications with aircraft, damage to satellites on orbit and power grid equipment on the ground.

DSCOVR was grounded during two previous launch attempts on February 8 and 10 by a faulty tracking radar and then upper level winds. As the countdown neared zero, controllers were green with no weather or ground issues in the way.

The Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) Falcon's nine rocket engines ignited on time at 6:03:32 p.m. EST, and lifted off into a twilight sky over Cape Canaveral. A 300-foot golden flame pushed the white rocket higher and faster as Falcon soared out over the Atlantic waters beginning SpaceX first deep space launch. Wednesday's launch also marked the tenth flight of a Falcon.

“It was inspiring to witness the launch of the Deep Space Climate Observatory," former Vice President Albert Gore said from near the launch site. "DSCOVR has embarked on its mission to further our understanding of Earth and enable citizens and scientists alike to better understand the reality of the climate crisis and envision its solutions. DSCOVR will also give us a wonderful opportunity to see the beauty and fragility of our planet and, in doing so, remind us of the duty to protect our only home.”

As the Falcon 9 first stage gulped it's fuel, engineers at SpaceX prepared for the flight's first stage separation. Controllers were originally scheduled to safely land the spent stage for reuse on a future flight as the booster was flipped around 180-degrees and later guided down by two burns towards a safe landing a top a free floating barge located about 370 miles down range from Cape Canaveral.

However, nearly thirty-foot waves at the swaying barge forced SpaceX to abandon plans and instead force it into a devastating water impact away from the platform. "Rocket soft landed in the ocean within 10 meters of target and nicely vertical," SpaceX founder Elon Musk wrote on Twitter 40 minutes following splashdown. "High probability of good droneship landing in non-stormy weather."

SpaceX officials point to this type of recovery and reuse of its rockets as a step toward reducing future launch costs. The company now charges $61.2 million for a 2016 payload to be launched a top its standard Falcon 9. The massive Falcon 9 Heavy fetches $85 million per launch.

On board camera views mounted on the rocket captured unique views of the flight including engine cut-off and stage separation. Thirty-six minutes into the flight, DSCOVR separated from the Falcon's upper stage and immediately deployed its twin solar arrays. NOAA expects the spacecraft will operate for up to five years, and could continue for a decade or more based on its thruster fuel consumption.

DSCOVR will operate from a position known as the Lagrange 1 orbit -- a position located 930,000 miles from Earth in an orbit around the Sun. NOAA expects it will take 110 days for DSCOVR to reach its L1 orbit for operations.

"From (this) position it's staring at the Sun and taking data measurements of the solar wind coming from the Sun in real time and transmitting that data directly to the Earth," Dr. Stephen Voltz, a NOAA assistant administrator for satellite and information services, explained on Saturday. "Looking backwards, it's also observing the Earth with a secondary payload."

The observatory will also photograph the brightly light disk of our planet a few times each day. The photographs will be published on the following day.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

SpaceX Dragon splashes down with space station equipment for NASA

A commercial resupply spacecraft loaded with science experiments and cargo undocked from the International Space Station on Tuesday and performed a pinpoint splashdown hours later in the Pacific Ocean.

Dragon's return capped a 31-day space voyage of which 29 days were spent docked to the Earth-facing side of the space station's Harmony module. The supply ship delivered nearly 5,100 pounds of fresh oxygen, food, equipment and water to the four man, two woman international crew on Jan. 12.

Grappled by the station's Canadian-built robotic arm, the Space Exploration Corp. Dragon was released into space at 2:10 p.m. EST, as the two spaceships soared 260 miles high over southern Australia. Filled with 3,700 pounds of numerous biological and physical samples, equipment and trash, Dragon then performed a series of burns to place it on course for a deorbit burn.

Once Dragon reached a precise point over Earth, it fired its thrusters to slow down the craft's speed by two hundred miles per hour and drop out of orbit. Forty minutes later, two massive parachutes slowed the charred spacecraft down allowing for a safe water landing at 7:44 p.m. EST, 259 miles southwest of Long Beach, California.

Dragon remains the only American spacecraft which can return science cargo safely to Earth so that scientists and engineers on the ground can analysis the data. This concluded flight was SpaceX fifth supply craft to deliver cargo and supplies to the space station and return successfully to earth.

"The ability to resupply and return this critical research continues to be an invaluable asset for the researchers here on Earth using the International Space Station as their laboratory in orbit," Kirt Costello, NASA deputy chief scientist for the International Space Station Program, said on Tuesday.

A European unmanned cargo craft is also due to depart the space station this week. The Automated Transfer Vehicle 5 will leave the orbital outpost on Saturday morning en route to a fiery re-entry and burn up over the Pacific waters.
copyright 1998 - 2010 Charles Atkeison, All rights reserved.