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.