Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Japanese Cargo Vessel Arrives at International Space Station

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's H-II Transfer Vehicle(HTV), or "Kounotori" has arrived at the International Space Station on its fifth mission to resupply the orbiting complex.

Carrying 5.5 tonnes of cargo for the crew aboard the orbiting laboratory, HTV-5 lifted off from the Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan under clear skies aboard a H-IIB rocket at 11:50 a.m. UTC on Wednesday, August 19 bound for a five day trip to the station.
HTV-5 was captured by Canadarm2 at 10:28 a.m. UTC
Credit: NASA

On Monday August 24 the HTV performed a rendezvous with the International Space Station before being grappled by the station's 57 foot long robotic arm, Canadarm2. Assisted by Kjell Lindgren of NASA, Japanese astronaut Kimiya Yui was at the controls of Canadarm2 from the robotics workstation in the Cupola. He was given the "Go for grapple" command by fellow Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata who was serving as CAPCOM(The voice link between astronauts on the ISS and Mission Control on Earth) during the on-orbit operations in Mission Control in Houston.

Yui then handed over control of the robot arm to teams back on Earth who issued a series of commands to Canadarm2 to slowly berth HTV-5 to the Earth-facing port of the Harmony Module of the ISS.

Included in the launch manifest is a space radiation observatory to search for dark matter, which will be installed on the exposed facility of the Japanese Experiment Module, pumps and filters for the station's Water Recovery System as well as food, water and other crew commodities for the astronauts and cosmonauts serving as part of Expedition 44.

HTV-5 is expected to remain docked to the station until late September before being loaded up with trash and other unwanted items and detached- destined for a fiery demise by burning up in the Earth's atmosphere.

Meanwhile back on Earth in Baikonur, Kazakhstan the crew of the Soyuz TMA-18M are undergoing final preparations and tests before launching to the station on September 2. Soyuz commander Sergei Volkov, making his third flight to the station will be flanked by rookie astronauts Andreas Mogensen of the European Space Agency and Kazakh cosmonaut Aidyn Aimbetov.

Volkov is scheduled to remain on board the station for the next several months as part of Expedition 45/46 while Mogensen and Aimbetov will be busy conducting scientific experiments during a short 10 day "Taxi mission" to the orbiting complex. This will allow crews to effectively swap out Soyuz vehicles, with Mogensen and Aimbetov returning to Earth on the Soyuz TMA-16M with veteran cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, who will come home after spending 170 days living and working in space.

ISS One Year Crew members Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko will return to Earth aboard the Soyuz TMA-18M with Volkov in March 2016.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Why Astronauts Growing Lettuce in Space is a VERY Big Deal

Every day aboard the International Space Station astronauts take a quick lunch break when they find a few minutes free between the running of several hundred scientific experiments, spacewalk preparations or physical exercise. On August 10, the dish of the day was lettuce. However, this was no ordinary lettuce. This was space-grown, red romaine lettuce, and it's a really, really big deal!

While two of their Russian colleagues were busy conducting a spacewalk outside the station, flight engineers Scott Kelly, Kjell Lindgren and Kimiya Yui were busy inside the orbiting complex harvesting the space grown produce for consumption as part of the NASA "Veggie" plant growth experiment. The trio then got the go ahead from Mission Control in Houston to eat the lettuce, marking the first time that astronauts were able to eat food that had been grown in the microgravity environment found in low-Earth orbit.
Astronaut Kjell Lindgren with the Veggie experiment
credit: NASA

Expedition 44 flight engineer and ISS One Year Crew member Scott Kelly of NASA wished his crew mates "Bon appetite" before all three took a bite out of the grown in space food. "It tastes good. It tastes kind of like arugula." 

Smiling from ear to ear, the three astroanuts spiced things up a bit by adding sides of olive oil and vinegar. The seeds were activated by Kelly on July 8 and harvested for 33 days. Half of all the lettuce leaves were consumed by the crew, while the other half will be returned to Earth for further analysis.

But why is growing food in space important?

Well, it's all because NASA is on a bold mission to send humans to Mars, on what the space agency calls its "Journey to Mars." On average Mars is 225 million kilometers from Earth, so a manned mission to the red planet can last anywhere between two to three years depending on how long those first Martian explorers are scheduled to remain on the surface.

This means that astronauts on missions to the fourth rock from the Sun would not be able to depend on a regular supply of cargo vehicles carrying food, water and equipment, just as they do aboard the space station. The only option for astronauts would for them to be completely self sufficient in growing their own food and recycling their own water.

Not only will NASA's Veggie experiment will allow astronauts to plant their own seeds, harvest them and eat them roughly a month later, but it is also hoped that recreational gardening in space will have positive psychological effects for the astonauts sent on these long duration space missions.

Alexandra Whitmire, a scientist at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston is working to find out the effect on the human psyche as a result of growing food in space. Whitmire is a Behavioral Health and Performance Research scientist for NASA's Human Research Program. Her team supports research related to reducing psychological risks on a Mars mission.
Artist's impression of a food growth habitation module
on the surface of Mars credit:  NASA

"The Veggie experiment is currently the only experiment we are supporting which involves evaluating the effects of plant life on humans in space," Whitmire said.

For this first batch of red romaine lettuce consumed on August 10, red, blue and green LEDs were used to provide a light and growth source for the seeds to germinate. NASA hopes to increase the number of plants grown on station in the near future and will also analyse the effect that different light waves have on the growth of plant seeds.

Even though a manned mission to Mars is at least another twenty years away, there's one thing for sure- mankind, in eating an out of this world salad that was grown aboard the International Space Station has just taken yet another small step to fulfilling the age old dream of expanding humanity's presence in the solar system by sending the first people to Mars.

"This payload, and having the ability to grow your own food, is a big step in that direction," said Kelly, who along with Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, is nearly half way into a year-long expedition to the international outpost.

That's one small step for veggies, one giant leap for mankind!

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Thursday, July 23, 2015

Soyuz Trio Arrive at International Space Station

The Soyuz TMA-17M spacecraft carrying three astronauts and cosmonauts has arrived at the International Space Station, just under six hours after launching from Kazakhstan.

The Soyuz rocket carrying Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren and Kimiya Yui of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 10:02 p.m. Irish Standard Time.
Kononenko, Lindgren and Yui spoke to their families on Earth from the
Zvezda Service Module. credit: NASA TV

On reaching Earth orbit less than nine minutes after launch, the Soyuz spacecraft deployed only one of its two solar arrays before successfully deploying the second shortly before docking. After a four orbit rendezvous profile, the Soyuz successfully docked with the Rassvet Module of the International Space Station's Russian segment at 3:45 a.m.

The hatches between the Soyuz and the station were opened at 5:56 a.m. after leak checks were completed, as Kononenko, Lindgren and Yui were greeted by the Expedition 44 prime crew members already aboard the station, restoring the station's crew complement to six people.

The new station residents who are expected to remain on the ISS for the next five months, before returning to Earth in December. They will begin life aboard their new home by adjusting to microgravity and becoming familiar with their surroundings.

This is the third long duration mission mission to the ISS for Soyuz commander Kononenko, who previously flew to the orbital laboratory during Expedition 17 and Expedition 30/31.

Today's arrival at the space station marks the first flight into space for Lindgren and Yui. The pair were both selected as part of the NASA Astronaut Class of 2009.

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Monday, July 13, 2015

An Interview with Astronaut Rhea Seddon

On May 30 2015 former NASA astronaut Rhea Seddon was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame at a ceremony at the Kennedy Space Center. Seddon was inducted into the Astronaut HOF with fellow Class of 2015 inductees John Grunsfeld, Kent Rominger and Steven Lindsey. I recently had the opportunity to ask Rhea a couple of questions on her experiences in both medicine and in space flight.

What were your favourite subjects in school?
I like lots of things – history, English, languages- but by far the one I liked best was biology.
Astronaut Rhea Seddon
Credit: NASA

I heard you say recently that while a lot of astronauts were interested in space exploration and our place in the cosmos, you were also interested in studying the effects of space flight on the explorers themselves. What sparked this interest?
In my biology class I learned how remarkable the human body is.  I was fascinated by how it was built, how it functioned, how it evolved, what made it sick and how it healed.  The thought of doing research that would help us understand how gravity affected humans – and other living things – was such an incredible opportunity I knew I had to fly in space.

How do you think your background as a surgeon helped you during your career as a shuttle astronaut?
It helped when I did the rat dissections on my third mission – but mostly I think it just proved that I had worked hard, learned a lot of things and wasn’t afraid to be a woman in what had been a man’s world.  Because I had also done research in nutrition, had practiced emergency medicine on the weekends and had my private pilot’s license I think I proved that I was interested in many things besides just surgery.

 When you look back at the science that was conducted over the course of not only your own but all the Spacelab missions and then compare that to the science being conducted on the International Space Station, how far do you feel we have come in terms of conducting scientific research in space?
I really haven’t kept up with the research done on the ISS;  however the opportunity to fly for longer periods of time has given us considerably greater information about adaptation to space.  I wish we had equipped the Space Station with better animal holding facilities and a centrifuge so we could better understand partial gravity.    

What is your opinion on the One Year Mission to the ISS by Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko?
It is a remarkable opportunity to study two men- and of course, it will allow us to compare Scott’s changes to his twin’s.  It will give us an idea of what things we will need to focus study on as we plan for a mission to Mars.

What do you feel are the biggest obstacles we need to overcome in order to send astronauts to deep space destinations for a long period of time?
The two things that I don’t think we know enough about are bone loss and deep space radiation and its effects.

Seddon recently published her own book entitled "Go for Orbit" which is available to buy 
on her website. Signed editions of this book are also available.

Be sure to find out more about Rhea Seddon by visiting her blog by clicking here.

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Thursday, July 2, 2015

Progress Cargo Ship Launches to Resupply Space Station

The Russian Progress M-28M cargo vehicle has successfully launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, marking the beginning of a two day-long commute to resupply the International Space Station.

The Progress lifted off from Pad 1A at the Baikonur Cosmodrome at 5:55 a.m. Irish Time carrying 2,381kg of food, fuel and supplies for the crew of Expedition 44.
Progress M-28M launched from Baikonur at 5:55 a.m.
Credit: Roscosmos 

After a flawless ride into orbit aboard a Soyuz-U rocket, the Progress separated from the rocket's third stage after eight minutes and forty-nine seconds of powered flight, deploying its antennas and solar arrays a short time later. 

Initial views from video cameras on board the Progress confirmed that everything was nominal and that all systems were "Go" for mission controllers in Korolev in Moscow to send commands to the vehicle to perform a series of orbital manoeuvres to reach the International Space Station.

Progress is scheduled to dock with the Pirs Docking Compartment on the Russian segment of the orbiting complex at 8:13 a.m. on Sunday morning.

This morning's launch comes just two months after the Progress M-27M was lost after the vehicle went into an uncontrolled spin and burned up in the Earth's atmosphere several days later.

It also comes in the wake of the disintegration of a Falcon 9 rocket carrying a SpaceX Dragon capsule to resupply the station just 139 seconds into flight on June 28.

In a NASA public affairs event yesterday, astronaut Scott Kelly was asked how the crew were feeling ahead of the launch of this latest Progress; "Third time's a charm I hope. We're hoping that we get this one obviously.. If these next two get delayed or move out beyond September or October it will cause problems but we're as confident as we can be."

Progress will spend several months docked to the International Space Station before it is loaded with waste, undocked and sent to burn up in the Earth's atmosphere.

Today's launch will be followed in August by a Japanese HTV flight. Orbital ATK is moving ahead with plans for its next launch later this year.

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Sunday, June 28, 2015

SpaceX Dragon Lost Just Minutes After Launch to Space Station

The SpaceX Dragon cargo vehicle making its seventh resupply mission to the International Space Station has been lost just minutes after launching from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The rocket and vehicle have both been lost.

The Falcon 9 appeared to have exploded just after the separation of the rocket's first stage. All data with the vehicle was lost, two minutes and nineteen seconds into the flight.
The vehicle appeared to disintegrate just minutes into launch
credit: NASA TV
It is currently unclear what exactly caused today's failure. According the Pam Anderson of SpaceX there were no problems with the performance of the first stage of the Falcon 9, and telemetry with Dragon was received by teams on the ground shortly after the incident occurred.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk said on Twitter; "There was an overpressure event in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank. Data suggests counterintuitive cause."

ISS programme managers have assured the public that anomalies such as the one which happened today are planned for and as a result, it is estimated that the crew currently has enough supplies to last until late October.

Some of the cargo which was being flown aboard Dragon includes a number of student experiments, plant growth experiments, a space suit as well as provisions for the crew on board the station.

Another item also lost today was the International Docking Adapter-1(IDA-1) which was due to be installed on the Pressurised Mating Adapter located on the forward facing port of the Harmony. This would allow commercial crew vehicles built by Boeing and SpaceX to dock with the station thus allowing them to transport astronauts from the United States to the International Space Station. The first flight of Commercial Crew are slated to occur no later than 2017.

This is the third space station resupply ship that has been lost in the past eight months. Today's anomaly occurred exactly two months after a Russian Progress resupply ship spun out of control and burned up in the Earth's atmosphere several days later. An Orbital Sciences Cygnus cargo craft exploded shortly after lift-off from the Wallops Flight Facility last October.

A Russian Progress resupply ship is scheduled to launch cargo to the station this coming Friday, July 3 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. This will be followed in August by a Japanese HTV flight. Orbital ATK is moving ahead with plans for its next launch later this year.

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Thursday, June 11, 2015

Space Station Trio Return to Earth after Extended Mission

The crew of the Soyuz TMA-15M spacecraft have returned to Earth after completing their 199 day-long mission to the International Space Station.

Virts, Shkaplerov and Cristoforetti in their reclining chairs
shortly after landing credit: NASA
Soyuz commander Anton Shkaplerov and crew mates Terry Virts and Samantha Cristoforetti landed their vehicle in the remote steppe of Kazakhtan at 14:45 UTC. under the setting Kazakh sun.

Shkaplerov, Virts and Cristoforetti said their goodbyes to their Expedition 43 crew mates early this morning before hatches between the station and the Soyuz were closed. This was followed at 11:20 by the undocking of the spacecraft, marking  the beginning of Expedition 44.

Expedition 43 commander Virts handed over the reigns of the station to Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, marking his fourth stint at the commander of the complex.

The Soyuz TMA-15M crew were originally slated to return to Earth last month, but the failure of the Russian Progress 59 resupply ship destined for the complex led to the postponement of their return home.

Shortly after landing in perfect conditions the crew were extracted one by one from the vehicle by Russian search and recovery forces at the landing site. They then sat for a short period in reclining chairs as they got a chance to come to terms with gravity once again after spending six and a half months in the microgravity environment aboard the ISS. The trio were then carried a short distance to an inflatable medical tent for brief testing and were also able to don some more comfortable clothing for a two hour helicopter ride to the staging city of Karaganda in Kazakhstan for a short welcoming ceremony. 

Altogether the crew have travelled 84.2 million miles in space since their launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan last November. 

"I'm going to miss these guys up here. Congrats on your safe return to Earth"
-Scott Kelly on Twitter
This afternoon's landing concludes the second long duration space flight for Shkaplerov who has now logged a total of 364 days in space. Terry Virts who has also just wrapped up his second flight to the station having previously flown there for a 13 day-long space shuttle mission in 2010 now has a total of 212 days of space flight experience under his belt. As for Cristoforetti, fresh from completing her first flight into space having been selected as an astronaut by the European Space Agency in 2009 now holds the record for the longest single space flight by a female, previously held by NASA astronaut Suni Williams.

In the meantime, Commander Padalka and his Expedition 44 crew mates Mikhail Kornienko and Scott Kelły will remain by themselves aboard the station for the next six weeks. They will be joined in late July by Oleg Kononenko, Kjell Lindgren and Kimiya Yui- the crew of the Soyuz TMA-17M.

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