Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Veteran Cosmonauts Complete Spacewalk to Deploy and Retrieve Experiements on ISS

Two veteran Russian cosmonauts have successfully completed a spacewalk lasting 4 hours and 45 minutes to retrieve and deploy a number of scientific experiments on the exterior of the International Space Station.

Cosmonauts Yuri Malenchenko and Sergey Volkov opened the hatch of the Pirs Docking Compartment airlock on the Russian Segment of the station at 12:55 p.m. GMT -  marking the beginning of today's Extra-Vehicular Activity(EVA).

The pair quickly got to work with Volkov jettisoning a used flash drive and towels overboard and retrograde(opposite the space station's direction of travel) which eliminated any possibility of a future collision with the complex or with visiting vehicles. The flash drive and towels are expected to burn up in the Earth's atmosphere within a few weeks.

Spacewalkers Malenchenko and Volkov
credit: NASA
With that task complete, Malenchenko was given a "GO" to egress from the airlock. His first task of the day was to translate to the Zvezda Service Module's Number 8 window to sample thruster residue left behind from rockets from visiting vehicles as well rockets on Zvezda itself.

The pair teamed up to remove a used experiment panel named "EXPOSE-R" which as the name suggests, exposes a number of chemical and biological samples to the vacuum of space while recording data during exposure. This was returned inside Pirs by Malenchenko who egressed once more with two more exposure payloads - "CKK" and "Vinoslivost," before heading to the station's Poisk module for installation.

While at Poisk, the spacewalking duo removed an old CKK exposure experiment for return to Earth and replaced it with a new one. The Vinoslivost experiment was then installed a short time later. This experiment exposes different types of metal to the space environment which will aid in the design and manufacturing of future spacecraft.

With Vinoslivost installed, Malenchenko and Volkov made their way to the Zarya module - the first component of the International Space Station, launched in November of 1998, to install gap spanners to assist future spacewalkers working on the station's exterior.

Finally, the last task of the day required the pair to install the Restavratsiya experiment near Pirs. This experiment involves exposing a number of materials commonly used on the exterior of Russian spacecraft to vacuum. While in a daytime pass, Malenchenko applied a thermal film to each surface whilst Volkov photographed.

Running 45 minutes ahead of their timeline and with all their tasks complete, Malenchenko and Volkov returned back into the Pirs airlock before closing the hatch at 5:40 p.m. - marking the end of today's excursion.

Today's spacewalk was the 193rd spacewalk in support of space station assembly and maintenance, the sixth in the career of Yuri Malenchenko, who conducted his first spacewalk almost 22 years ago outside the Russian space station Mir in 1994, and the fourth in Sergey Volkov's career.

Volkov will return to Earth in four weeks time in the early morning of March 2nd alongside ISS One Year crew members Mikhail Kornienko and Scott Kelly. Malenchenko will remain aboard the orbiting laboratory with NASA astronaut Tim Kopra and ESA astronaut Tim Peake.

Thank you for reading Irish Space Blog!

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Challenger - With Great Tragedy, Comes Great Triumph

by Cian O'Regan

On the thirtieth anniversary of the Challenger disaster which occurred on this day, January 28 1986, we pause to remember the seven person crew of space shuttle mission STS-51L, who died in the name of exploration.

On this day we remember astronauts Dick Scobee, Mike Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Judy Resnik, Christa McAuliffe, Ron McNair and Greg Jarvis.
The crew of space shuttle mission STS-51L from Left-Right:
Back Row: Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis, Judy Resnik
Front Row: Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Ron McNair
credit: NASA

I was not born until ten years after Challenger exploded, so unfortunately I did not experience what it was like to marvel at those early shuttle flights or become familiar with those who made each mission possible. 

Fortunately, I did not have to share in their grief.

Space shuttle mission STS-51L lifted off from Launch Complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center at 11:38 a.m. Eastern Time on January 28. It was a bitterly cold winter's morning in Florida that day with temperatures falling as low as 26 °F (−3 °C) - well below the qualification limit of the shuttle's twin Solid Rocket Boosters(SRBs).

Combined with strong winds, conditions for launch were far from ideal.

Just one minute and thirteen seconds after lift-off, Challenger suffered a catastrophic structural failure resulting in the loss of the vehicle and its crew. The Rogers Commission later determined the failure of primary and backup O ring seals in the right SRB to be the cause of the accident.

Whether you were around at the time or not, we all know the fate of Challenger. People remember it in much the same way that they remember the Kennedy assassination and other moments in history. They remember where they were when they heard the news, who they spoke to, how they felt. My father for example often reminds me of where he was that day three decades ago- working as a doorman at a hotel in New York City. He had the heavy duty of informing some people of what had happened earlier that day down at the space coast.

Although most people not only in the United States but around the world never saw let alone met President Kennedy, somehow they still felt as if they knew the man personally - weeping at the news of his death as if he were a member of the family. The same is true for the crew of Challenger.

I feel that as a space enthusiast and as a person whose heroes are those who fly into the cosmos aboard spaceships like Challenger, I figured I owe the crew and their families a simple prayer of remembrance and this piece to show that their efforts were far from vain.

I know that no words of mine can come close to trying to sum up what happened on this day thirty years ago. However, earlier this week I came across a speech made by John Glenn to the team of launch controllers on duty that day, just six hours after lift-off. I think it sums things up pretty well.

"Most of you have been tied up here today, you've been tied up on the boards here at the positions here. You haven't seen probably much of what's been going on on TV across the country today, but it's been a national day of tragedy, I can guarantee you that."

"All America is sharing in the tragedy that you have lived through here today. We've had tremendous triumphs. We've head triumph after triumph after triumph and that's how mankind goes ahead.. We try! We try! We try! In this program we've succeeded."

The final launch of Challenger on January 28 1986. The shuttle
and its crew would be lost just 73 seconds after launch.
credit: National Geographic
"Really, if we're honest about it, and honest with ourselves, beyond our wildest dreams, I would have never thought we would ever go this far without losing some people in something where you're up there travelling around at 5 miles a second, the heat of re-entry and all the complexities and the things that have to work right.. We come to a time when something happens, and we have a tragedy that goes along with our triumphs. And I guess that's the story of all mankind."

It would have been much easier to cancel the shuttle program after Challenger was lost rather than pick up the pieces and press on with space shuttle missions. It would also ensure an accident like this never happened again aboard a shuttle. Sadly, NASA would lose another shuttle when Columbia burned up upon re-entry during STS-107 in February 2003.

But if you ask any astronaut about whether they think the risks associated with sending humans into space are worth it, you will be met with a response similar to that given by Gus Grissom, Mercury astronaut, who was to die in the Apollo 1 fire;

"If we die, we want people to accept it. We're in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life."

Three decades on from Challenger, we no longer see the shuttle blazing a trail in the skies above us. Nowadays instead of clear skies, you now require a museum admission ticket to admire the surviving shuttles; Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavour.

But all is not lost! We have learned from our mistakes and now live in an age where there has been a continuous human presence in space for over fifteen years and counting aboard the football pitch-sized International Space Station. I can only imagine that this idea would have been unfathomable as the month of January drew to a close in 1986. However, when humans suffer setbacks, we come back even stronger, more curious, and more determined. Who knows what the next thirty years in space may bring?

January 28 marks NASA's Day of Remembrance where the agency remembers all of its fallen astronauts. Let us not only remember Challenger as well as the crew of Apollo 1 and Columbia(whose anniversaries also occur at this time), but all those from around the world who have given their lives in the name of space exploration.

Res Gesta Per Excellentiam.

Ad Astra!

A big thanks to Andy McCrea, Hart Sastrowardoyo, Al Hallonquist and Ian Whalley for their contributions and help to this article. Also be sure to check out my friend Tim Gagnon's website. Tim is just after designing a wonderful patch to remember all of those who died in man's conquest of space.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Astronauts Complete Shortened Spacewalk to Replace Faulty Power Unit

Two astronauts aboard the International Space Station have completed an abbreviated four hour, forty three minute-long spacewalk to replace a faulty power unit on the exterior of the International Space Station.

On their 32nd day in space, NASA astronaut Tim Kopra and Tim Peake of the European Space Agency began their Extra-Vehicular Activity(EVA) from the U.S. Quest airlock at 12:48 p.m. GMT. while the ISS was flying 250 miles over the Southern Indian Ocean.

Tim Peake smiles for the camera as he became Britain's first astronaut
to walk in space. credit: NASA
They quickly translated some 200 feet to the S6 truss on the starboard edge of the space station to remove a faulty power regulator known as a Sequential Shunt Unit(SSU) that failed on November 13 2015.

Working in tandem, the pair removed the old Sequential Shunt Unit while the station was in orbital night time. This removed the possibility of sparking as no power was being generated by the station's solar arrays at this time. Kopra and Peake installed a new SSU a short while later. The new unit is nicknamed "Dusty" as it has been aboard the complex since 1999.

Aboard the International Space Station are eight power channels along which solar power generated by the station's eight solar arrays flows to operate on board systems. The purpose of the SSU is to regulate power output of the solar arrays to 160 volts. The ISS can operate with only seven channels in operation, but if another were to fail some on board systems would need to be shut down.

With the primary task of the Extra-Vehicular Activity(EVA) complete, the spacewalking duo focused their attention on routing a series of cables that will be used to prepare the orbiting laboratory for the upcoming installation of International Docking Adapters on Pressurised Mating Adapters that will serve as docking ports for future commercial crew and resupply vehicles visiting the International Space Station.

However shortly after 4 p.m. lead spacewalker Kopra soon noticed that a volume of cold water had found its way into his helmet. He also noted that his shoulders and wrists were also wet as a result of the leak.

The drinking water astronauts use to keep hydrated is kept at ambient temperature, indicating that the water stemmed from a leaking cooling garment inside his spacesuit.

Although the spacewalkers were in no immediate danger, lead Flight Director Royce Renfrew made the decision to terminate the EVA early and bring Kopra and Peake back inside.
Renfrew later spoke to NASA Public Affairs Officer Rob Navias on his decision which you can watch here.

"We're in a terminate case," radioed NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman in Mission Control, relaying Renfrew's decision. "We want you to start heading back to the airlock."

This follows a similar incident in July 2013 in which ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano's helmet filled with a large volume of water, leading to the immediate abort of that particular spacewalk.

This was the 192nd spacewalk in support of space station assembly and maintenance. Today also marks the first time a British citizen has conducted an EVA with Tim Peake making the first spacewalk of his career. Today's excursion marks the third spacewalk for Tim Kopra.

Monday, December 21, 2015

In Pictures: Last Night's Incredibly Strong Northern Lights

There may not be snow forecast for Christmas Day this year, but for people in northern latitudes, the space weather forecast is much more promising! Last night, skywatchers lucky enough to have a clear view of the northern horizon were treated to an unexpectedly strong display of the Aurora Borealis, and here are some of our favourites..

"Visible to naked eye including pillars! So amazing I even cried!"
Lindsey Taylor saw the northern lights from Saltburn & Staithes in England.
"Live from the Waterford/Tipperary border in the Knockmealdowns #aurora."
credit: Aurora Alert Ireland
Aurora Borealis seen from Warrenpoint, Co. Down
credit: Ryan Simpson 
Karen Munro tweeted "Amazing Aurora in Thurso, northern Scotland
 at 23.30 UTC. Faint corona overhead as well."
"At 51.9 degrees latitude, these must be among the most southerly
aurora photos tonight. Low light pollution helps."

credit: Colm Ryan

Aurora Borealis over Inishowen peninsula, Donegal, Ireland
credit: Discover Inishowen
"#Aurora tonight, probably some of the best be seen in Scotland." The view from Scotland was even better, with @Jailender tweeting
 capturing a great image of the aurora and a moonbow!
"Phenomenal Aurora display over Youghal, East Cork." John Delaney took this beauty from Youghal in Co. Cork.
"For five minutes the aurora went bonkers at York Beach, ME tonight." Rob Wright tweeted this stunning picture from Maine.
"But wait - there's more."
Brian Horisk of Adventure Art shared the view from north-east Fife, Scotland
The view from Kilcock, Co. Kildare
credit: @_Dale__ on Twitter
The aurora visible from Mullaughmore in Co. Sligo.
credit: Gerry O'Donnell

With KP levels reaching a high of  KP 7 on the night of December 20, Astronomy Ireland were quick to send out an email to its subscribers alerting people of the increased solar activity;

"Conditions have continued to be active and the Northern Lights have been seen from Ireland this evening, Sunday Dec. 20! We expect them to be visible for several hours, possibly even until dawn (7am)." 

Didn't get a chance to see the aurora? Don't worry- we're being told to keep our eyes peeled- "It would be a good idea to keep checking the north horizon for a day or two just in case."

Thank you for reading Irish Space Blog!

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Friday, December 18, 2015

Reader's Top 5 Space Events of 2015

Earlier this month we asked our readers to submit what they thought was their favourite astronomical/space event of the past year. We were flooded with responses ranging from the solar eclipse of March 20 to meteor showers to the New Horizons flyby of Pluto.

So without further ado, here are your favourite space events of 2015!

1. "Supermoon" Lunar Eclipse
By far the most popular event, receiving twice the number of votes than second place, it's clear that the lunar eclipse on September 28 has a special place in our reader's hearts. And why wouldn't it? 
David Blanchflower captured this stunning image of the eclipse
from Newcastle, England (credit: David Blanchflower)

Encompassing more than half the planet, those lucky enough to catch a glimpse between clouds were wowed by what they saw, and those who stayed up into the wee hours of the morning were kindly rewarded for their efforts.

For many, it will be remembered as the night the Moon turned blood red- a "blood Moon." 

However, this was no ordinary lunar eclipse. What made this one special was the fact that it occurred during a Supermoon- when the Moon is full at its closest point to Earth in its orbit. While lunar eclipses happen all the time, supermoon lunar eclipses are rare- with the next one occurring in 2033!

2. The New Horizons Flyby of Pluto

Pluto seen by New Horizons at a distance of 280,000 miles
(credit: NASA)
On July 14 2015, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft made history by becoming the first space probe to make a close flyby to observe dwarf planet Pluto and its moons.

Launching from Florida in 2006, it took over nine years for New Horizons to reach the distant Kuiper Belt object. In fact, the journey took so long that Pluto was demoted from a planet to a dwarf planet during its transit. But Pluto didn't disappoint, with New Horizons capturing stunning images like these which allowed scientists back on Earth try and understand how dwarf planets first came into existence.

Now that Pluto has finally been checked off the list of heavenly bodies in our solar system to explore, New Horizons is now setting its sights on a new target to explore. It's currently headed for Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69 with arrival scheduled for January 1 2019.

3. Solar Eclipse of March 20

There's no better way to demonstrate the alignment of objects in our solar system than a solar eclipse. A total solar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes in front of the Sun- turning day into night and back again all within a few minutes. 

The solar eclipse of March 20 was visible from most of Europe with totality only visible from the Faroe Islands. Unfortunately most eclipse hunters who made the trip to the islands in the North Atlantic were clouded over. But it wasn't all bad news as some great shots of the total solar eclipse were captured by people in aircraft flying above the clouds. Check out this cool video taken from a plane flying high over the Atlantic where the view was much, much more spectacular.

For the rest of Europe a partial solar eclipse was visible, allowing viewers on the ground to view and take photographs of the rare celestial event. The next partial solar eclipse visible from Ireland takes place on August 21 2017, when viewers situated in a long corridor spanning the United States will witness totality.

4. The Perseid Meteor Shower

In the northern hemisphere the Perseid Meteor Shower always ranks among the favourite astronomical events of the year- never failing to disappoint. With up to fifty meteors per hour visible in dark skies, it's easy to spend hours looking up and watching debris from Comet Swift-Tuttle slam into the Earth’s upper atmosphere at around 210,000 kilometers (130,000 miles) per hour, lighting up the nighttime with fast-moving shooting stars.

Check out this amazing shot of Perseid meteors and the Milky Way over Mount Ranier in Washington State(credit: Matthew Dietrich).

5. The discovery of liquid water on Mars

On September 28 NASA announced that liquid water has been discovered on the surface of Mars!(See: NASA Has Found Liquid Water on Mars)

Based on images taken over several years from the NASA's Mars Reconaissance Orbiter(MRO), currently orbiting the red planet, there is enough evidence to suggest that liquid water does in fact exist on the surface of Mars today. MRO has been orbiting Mars since 2006.

“This is a significant development, as it appears to confirm that water - albeit briny - is flowing today on the surface of Mars.” -John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. 

Recurring Slope Lineae at Hale Crater, Mars
(credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona)
Using the orbiter's imaging spectrometer, scientists have observed that dark streaks on the Martian surface appear to ebb and flow over time. These darks streaks are known as recurring slope lineae(RSL) and appear to flow down steep slopes during warmer months, then fade away during colder months.

September 28 will go down in history as the day when humans stopped thinking of the existence of water on Mars as science fiction and instead turned it into science reality. In the words of Grunsfeld, "Stay tuned to science because science never sleeps and we've got lots of discoveries(left to make)."

What was your favourite space event of 2015? Let us know by tweeting us @irishspaceblog
or get in touch on Google+

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

From the Halls of West Point to the International Space Station

The United States Military Academy at West Point, New York is well known for producing some of the most highly skilled military graduates in the world. However, it is also renowned for its spacefaring alumni which includes NASA astronaut Tim Kopra, who today launched aboard a Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan for a six month long mission to the International Space Station.

Kopra graduated from West Point in 1985
credit: NASA

Kopra blasted off at 11:03 pm. GMT(6:03 p.m. EST) in the Soyuz TMA-19M spacecraft from Pad 1 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome- the same launch pad used by Yuri Gagarin when he became the first man in space in April 1961. 

He is joined by Soyuz commander and veteran Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko making his sixth flight into space and his fourth flight to the ISS, and rookie European Space Agency astronaut Tim Peake of Great Britain- the first Brit to visit the station.

The trio are set to live and work aboard the station for the best part of six months as part of Expedition 46/47, with Kopra serving as commander of the station for Expedition 47.

No stranger to the space station, Kopra was selected by NASA in July 2000 and later served as a flight engineer aboard the orbiting laboratory as part of Expedition 20 in 2009. He launched with the STS-127 crew aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour and returned to Earth with the STS-128 crew aboard Space Shuttle Discovery. 

Before joining the space agency he received his commission as a second lieutenant from the United States Military Academy in May 1985 and was designated as an Army aviator in August 1986. 

I recently asked Tim how he felt his training at the USMA helped him in his career as an astronaut,.

"West Point is a very challenging environment for young people..
I think the thing you learn that's most valuable from that experience is about getting your job done.. being disciplined and the fact that it's a team effort.."

"The common expression at West Point is "co-operate and graduate" and I think that's stuck with me."

USMA logo
credit: Army Times
Kopra finished by noting how important perseverance is in graduating from the military academy- "You have to stick with it in order to make it through."

Tim is part of a privileged group of West Point graduates to have flown in space. Notable others include Ed White, Buzz Aldrin and Al Worden, as well as former space station commanders Doug Wheelock and Jeffrey Williams(Williams will in fact fly aboard the ISS with Kopra as part of Expedition 47/48).

Kopra, Malenchenko and Peake are scheduled to return to Earth on June 5 2016.

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Friday, December 11, 2015

Space Station Trio Return to Earth

The crew of the Soyuz TMA-17M spacecraft have returned to Earth after completing their 141 day-long mission to the International Space Station.

Soyuz commander Oleg Kononenko alongside crew mates Kjell Lindgren and Kimiya Yui landed their vehicle in the remote steppe of Kazakhstan at around 1:12 p.m. GMT.

Kononenko, Lindgren and Yui bid farewell to their Expedition 45 crew mates early this morning before hatches between the station and the Soyuz were closed. This was followed at 9:49 a.m. by the undocking of the spacecraft, marking the official beginning of Expedition 46.

Lindgren tweeted: "All loaded up! Farewell to our Exp 45 crew mates
and the magnificent International Space Station! Hello Earth!"
credit: NASA
Expedition 45 flight engineer Sergey Volkov, who remains aboard the station with One Year Crew members Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko had time to wish the departing crew one final goodbye shortly after undocking"Don't miss us too much- we'll see you in March."

The Soyuz TMA-17M crew have been living aboard the orbiting laboratory since July and have conducted hundreds of scientific experiments across a wide range of scientific fields including physics, Earth observation and human physiology experiments. Three Extra-Vehicular Activities(spacewalks) were also conducted during Expedition 44/45 to maintain the station.

The spacecraft landed in a flurry of snow storms in darkness which marked only the sixth night landing of a Soyuz vehicle returning from the International Space Station, and the first of such landings to take place after sunset. The crew were extracted one by one from the vehicle by Russian search and recovery forces at the landing site and immediately flown to the remote town of Dzhezkazgan for primary medical testing and a welcoming ceremony.

Kononenko will board a Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center plane for a flight back to Star City to be reunited with his family. Lindgren and Yui will board a NASA plane for a flight back to Houston.

Altogether the crew have traveled 59.6 million miles in space since their launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on July 22 last.. 

This afternoon's landing concludes the third long duration space flight for Kononenko who has now logged a total of 533 days in space. NASA astronaut Lindgren and JAXA astronaut Yui, both returning from their first space flight, log 141 days in space.

In the meantime, station commander Scott Kelly along with Russian flight engineers Mikhail Kornienko and Sergey Volkov will remain aboard the station until March 2 2016. Kelly and Kornienko have been living aboard the ISS since March of this year and are the first station crew members to participate in a year-long mission living and working aboard the laboratory.

Kelly, Kornienko and Volkov will be alone on the station for just four days before being joined on December 15 by the crew of the Soyuz TMA-19M comprising of veteran cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, NASA astronaut Tim Kopra and rookie space flier Tim Peake of the European Space Agency. Th trio are set to launch aboard a Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome at 11:03 a.m.

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