An extremely busy first quarter of the new year is planned for the crew of the International Space Station which will pave the way for new transportation and growth as humankind lives and works in earth orbit.
Several flights to the International Space Station by both manned and unmanned craft will be the focus during the first 90 days of the year.
The station's crew of six known as the Expedition 26 will balance the arrival of several ferry flights of supplies; perform two spacewalks by two Russians and two by Americans; and prepare for the arrival of the six visitors and a new storage module aboard the much delayed space shuttle Discovery.
Japan's space agency JAXA will kick things off on January 20 with the launch of their unmanned resupply craft KOUNOTORI, or "white stork" in Japanese.
The ten-meter long KOUNOTORI craft will lift-off atop the H-IIB rocket from the Yoshinobu Launch Complex at the Tanegashima Space Center at 1:29 am EST (3:29 pm Japan ST time). It will mark the second time a supply craft from Japan will fly to the station.
Seven days later, the craft, loaded with some 16 tons of fresh supplies and hardware, will be captured by the space station's robotic arm and then berthed. The hatches into the KOUNOTORI will not open for nearly three weeks by the crew due to the busy nature of the first quarter.
Two Russian cosmonauts on January 21 will don their Orlan MK spacesuits and set out for an orbital walk in space to begin a multi-hour job outside Russia's Zvezda service module. The spacewalk should get underway just after 9 a.m. EST.
Cosmonauts Oleg Skripohcka and Dmitry Kondratiev will perform several tasks including the removal of "the impulse plasma injector from Zvezda’s outer surface, and installation of Russia's high-speed data transmission equipment Photon-Gamma intended to study gamma-bursts and optical radiation during thunderstorms", the Russian space agency stated to this reporter.
A second Russian-based spacewalk is planned for one month later.
The crew will undock the trash filled old Progress 40P from the Russian Piers docking module on Jan. 23 for it's fiery return to earth.
This will make room for Russia to then launch their freshly supplied Progress M-09M craft to dock with the Russian side of earth's orbital outpost in space.Lift-off of the Soyuz U rocket with the Progress 41P unmanned craft is scheduled for January 27 at 8:30 pm EST ( 01:30 GMT on the 28th), from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in western Kazakhstan.
The Progress will dock three days later to the Russian Piers docking module.
In the United States, the space shuttle Discovery will be poised to lift-off on her 39th and final space flight. Delayed due to a gaseous hydrogen leak and a half-dozen cracks on the ship's external fuel tank, the current target launch date of February 3 will likely be delayed at least one week based on what several insiders at the Kennedy Space Center have stated.
Discovery's brief February launch window closes on the 10th, and reopens again on the 28th.
South of Florida and into the northern jungles of South America lies the European spaceport in French Guiana -- home to the Arianespace's Ariane 5 heavy lift rocket.
An Ariane 5 is scheduled to launch after Discovery's lift-off on an unmanned cargo supply flight to the European Columbus module on the station.
Launch of the Ariane 5 with the automated transfer vehicle nicknamed Johannes Kepler is currently set for February 15 at 5:09 pm EST (2209 GMT), from Kourou.
Kepler is currently scheduled to dock with the Russian side of station on February 26
On March 16, three of the station's crew members will depart for their return to earth. Alexander Kaleri, Scott Kelly and Skripochka will undock aboard the Soyuz TMA-01M craft and land several hours later in Kazakhstan.
Once the Soyuz departs, the remaining crew of three -- new station commander Dmitry Kondratiev and flight engineers Catherine "Cady" Coleman and Paolo Nespoli -- will form the core of the new Expedition 27.
The first quarter of 2011 will conclude with the launch of a new crew of three to the space station to begin a nearly six month stay.
Russian Soyuz 26 commander Alexander Samokutyaev and flight engineers Andrei Borisienko and Ron Garan will lift-off aboard a Soyuz rocket on March 29 at 8:43 pm EST (0043 GMT on the 30th), on a two day journey to the space station.
Of special interest to this reporter is what Garan will carry with him into earth orbit -- a Space Tweep Society patch.
In talking with Garan last spring, I asked him if he could represent those of us who write and discuss aerospace activities via Twitter and in blog form by flying the nearly 4-inch patch.
"Sure I'd be happy to take a patch with me", the NASA astronaut told me on May 26. "It will probably be a one way trip though since we will have retired the Shuttle by then."
The black circular patch features the society's logo of a bird named Meco high above a celestial object, and was created by the society's co-founder Jen Scheer.
Everyone involved with STwS would just as soon see the Meco patch stay in earth orbi