Tuesday, December 23, 2014

"Houston.. Please be informed there is a Santa Claus" Celebrating Christmas in Space

"Houston.. Please be informed there is a Santa Claus."

At this time of year, as people all over the world gather with their loved ones to celebrate the holiday season, there are currently six people who will literally be having an out of this world Christmas this year. Space Station crews are launched on missions lasting around six months in duration. As a result, every year some astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the station unfortunately don't get to celebrate occasions such as Thanksgiving, birthdays, and of course, Christmas, with their families back on Earth. But that doesn't mean they don't celebrate them in space!

The Expedition 34 crew celebrating Christmas Day on ISS
On the ISS there are video-conferencing capabilities on board which allow the crew to talk with their family and friends at home. There is even a small plastic tree and stockings are hung on the walls for each member of the crew so that they can be filled with a few Christmas treats. Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti who is currently living aboard the orbiting complex, was asked recently about what kind of items would be included as stocking fillers. She replied"If we come across someone's favourite dish when searching through a food container, we can stick it in his or her sock!" There is also a guitar and ukulele if the crew want to break out a few Christmas carols over the holiday season.

However, astronauts on the space station were not the first people to celebrate Christmas in space. The most famous example of astronauts celebrating the holidays was the crew of Apollo 8 back in 1968.

Spending Christmas at the Moon
On man's first mission to the Moon, NASA astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders launched from the Kennedy Space Center on December 21 1968. While in lunar orbit just before Christmas Eve, in what has become a favourite Christmas memory for many, the crew snapped the famous Earthrise photo, and took turns in reading the first few verses of the book of Genesis. Valerie Anders, wife of Bill Anders said "The words were so beautiful. Christmas. the Moon, they were so far away and everybody cried."

"Earthrise" taken by Apollo 8 crew.
Christmas 1968.
Upon re-obtaining communications with Mission Control back on Earth after passing around the far side of the Moon, Lovell felt compelled to tell Houston and the world of their discoveries while flying over the far side of the Moon.

"Please be informed there is a Santa Claus!"
What's on the menu?
I bet a lot of you are probably wondering what's on the Christmas menu on the ISS. Well, there's a wide variety to choose from, ranging from tortilla wraps to irradiated beef for the crew on board. This sure stands in sharp contrast with the toothpaste-style food that would have been eaten by the Apollo 8 crew.

So when you settle down for a big Christmas turkey dinner and pudding for dessert on December 25, be sure to think of the six people living on the International Space Station, because you never know- maybe you'll be having your meal at the same time as them- as they fly 250 miles above planet Earth.

On behalf of Irish Space Blog we would sincerely like to wish all our readers a very Happy Christmas, a lovely New Year, and finally, to echo the words of Apollo 8 commander Frank Borman, "God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth."

Sunday, December 7, 2014

ISS Passes Over UK & Ireland for December 2014

I've received quite a few emails from people recently asking for advice on how they can see the International Space Station from their own backyard this holiday season, so I've decided to put together the times and info that you need to see it. 

The International Space Station will be back in Irish and UK skies from the evening of December 9 2014 to the evening of December 28.

How to see the space station?
If you're out looking for the space station and worried you might not be able to see it- don't worry! You literally can't miss it!

The International Space Station
Traveling at a speed of approximately 5 miles a second at an altitude of around 250 miles above the Earth, the International Space Station orbits our planet every 92 minutes. It's the size of a football field with huge solar arrays to supply it with power. Sunlight reflecting off the arrays mean the station is visible from Earth during dawn and dusk, when skies are a bit darker!

You don't need any special equipment- just your eyes. All you are required to know is what time it will be passing over and where to look. It's that easy!

There's nothing like seeing the ISS for the first time! For me, the best thing about it is knowing that there are people living and working up there. Who knows? Maybe while you're looking up at them, one of the six astronauts and cosmonauts on board will be looking out the window at you!

Once you see the orbital complex for the first time, you'll find that you'll want to keep seeing it over and over again! So be sure to tell all your friends, family and neighbours to watch out for the space station flying overhead. There really is no other site quite like it!

ISS Pass Times for UK & Ireland. December 2014

Be sure to check Irish Space Blog both here and on Twitter for the latest details of the next time the International Space Station will be visible in the skies over your town. And most of all- be sure to look up! Clear skies to one and all, and have a happy Christmas!

Thank you for reading Irish Space Blog!                                                                                

Friday, December 5, 2014

NASA's Orion Spacecraft Completes First Test Flight

NASA's next generation crew vehicle Orion, designed to take astronauts to deep space destinations such as the Moon, an asteroid and Mars, has completed its first test flight around the Earth.

Atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket, Orion lifted off from Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 12:05 p.m. GMT. This uncrewed mission, designated Evaluation Flight Test-1(EFT-1) tested systems critical to future crew safety, also marks the first time that a spacecraft designed to carry humans has gone beyond the bounds of low-Earth orbit and into deep space since the days of Apollo.

Less than eighteen minutes of powered flight, Orion reached its initial orbit. After completing one revolution around the Earth, the second stage of the Delta IV fired its engines once again for a 4-minute, 45-second engine burn to raise Orion to a higher orbit, now 5,800 kilometers above the Earth(15 times higher than the orbit of the International Space Station).

Passing through the Van Allen Radiation Belts, data recorders on board measured the radiation levels being received by the spacecraft in order to analyse the doses of radiation astronauts would receive on future missions on Orion to deep space. Two cameras on board were also in a position to capture images of Earth from 5,800 kilometres above the planet.

Trial by Fire
Nearly three and a half hours after launch, Orion separated from its Service Module and the Delta IV Heavy, then fired its thrusters to set it on course for a fiery re-entry through the Earth's atmosphere. Traveling at around 32.000kmh during re-entry, Orion's heat shield experienced temperatures of 4000 Degrees Celsius, 80% of the temperature that would be experienced on a return journey from the Moon, as it made its journey home.

Stunning views of Earth from Orion cameras. credit: NASA TV
During this time there was an expected 2.5 minute loss of communications(LOS) between Orion and Mission Control teams in Houston, who were led today by Flight Director Mike Sarafin, as superheated plasma formed around the vehicle itself, blocking signals both in and out.

Finally, over 4.5 hours after launch in Florida, with its three parachutes fully deployed, Orion, now traveling at less than 30kmh, Orion splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, around 270 miles off the coast of Baja, California at 4:29 p.m.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden later said in a statement:
“Today’s flight test of Orion is a huge step for NASA and a really critical part of our work to pioneer deep space on our Journey to Mars.. The teams did a tremendous job putting Orion through its paces in the real environment it will endure as we push the boundary of human exploration in the coming years.”

Members of the US Navy aboard the USS Anchorage were in the vicinity of the landing zone to recover the Orion spacecraft. Once the vehicle was made safe, cables were attached by divers and Orion was towed into the flooded deck of the ship. Once secure, the vessel began the journey home to port in San Diego.

What Happens Next?
Once data from today's flight has been analysed the focus for the NASA teams working on Orion systems will turn to the next flight of Orion. Mission EM-1 will involve another test flight of the Orion Crew Module, this time attached to a Service Module designed by the European Space Agency. This mission will fly beyond the Moon in 2017. The first crewed flight of Orion to the Moon is expected for 2021.

Orion will be used to carry astronauts to an asteroid that will be placed in a stable lunar orbit in the 2020s as part of the Asteroid Redirect Mission. Designed to carry four people to deep space, Orion will facilitate the exploration of other bodies in our solar system for the first time in over forty years.

On a sidenote..
Orion was originally scheduled to lift off from the Cape at 12:05 p.m. GMT on Thursday December 4, but a fault in one of the Delta IV's valves meant launch had could not take place inside the specified launch window, resulting in the scrubbing of the launch by 24-hours.

Also, legendary former NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz, who led teams in Mission Control on numerous Apollo flights to the Moon, was a special VIP guest in the Mission Control Center in Houston this week. Kranz was one of the Flight Directors on Apollo 17, a mission which marked the last time humans have traveled to and returned from deep space.

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Monday, November 24, 2014

Soyuz Trio Arrive at International Space Station

The Soyuz TMA-15M spacecraft carrying three astronauts and cosmonauts has arrived at the International Space Station, just six hours after launch from Kazakhstan.

The Soyuz rocket carrying Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, NASA astronaut Terry Virts and Samantha Cristoforetti of the European Space Agency, lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 21:01 GMT.

On reaching Earth orbit less than nine minutes after launch, the Soyuz spacecraft deployed it's solar arrays, performed a series of orbital burns and manoeuvres- setting its course for the orbiting complex.

After a four orbit orbital rendezvous, the Soyuz successfully docked with the Rassvet Module of the International Space Station's Russian segment at 02:53.
The Expedition 42 crew aboard the ISS speaking with family.
The hatches between the Soyuz and the station were opened after leak checks were completed, as Shkaplerov, Virts and Cristoforetti were greeted by the Expedition 42 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 May 2015. They will begin life aboard their new home by adjusting to microgravity and becoming familiar with their surroundings.

This is the second long duration mission mission to the ISS for Shkaplerov, who spent six months aboard the orbital laboratory as a Flight Engineer during Expedition 29/30. 

This is the first long duration flight for Virts, and his second flight into space, after piloting Space Shuttle Atlantis to the International Space Station on shuttle mission STS-130 back in 2010.

This is the first flight into space for rookie ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, having been selected as an astronaut by the agency in 2009.

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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Cygnus Resupply Ship Bound for International Space Station Explodes Seconds After Launch

The Orbital Sciences Cygnus cargo craft carrying supplies to the International Space Station has exploded just seconds after launch.

The Antares rocket exploded six seconds after launch. (credit: NASA)
Cygnus which launched in perfect conditions from Pad0A on Wallops Island at 10:22 p.m. Irish Time to begin a nine and a half minute journey to low-Earth orbit suffered a catastrophic anomaly six seconds after launch, falling back down to the launch pad moments later. 

Launch personnel confirmed that there were no personnel in the area at the time of the incident, and that damage was isolated to property within the vicinity.

The Expedition 41 crew aboard the International Space Station were informed shortly after the accident occurred.

Orbital Sciences issued the following statement shortly after the accident:

          “It is far too early to know the details of what happened,” said Mr. Frank Culbertson, Orbital’s Executive Vice President and General Manager of its Advanced Programs Group.“As we begin to gather information, our primary concern lies with the ongoing safety and security of those involved in our response and recovery operations. We will conduct a thorough investigation immediately to determine the cause of this failure and what steps can be taken to avoid a repeat of this incident. As soon as we understand the cause we will begin the necessary work to return to flight to support our customers and the nation’s space program.
Orbital will provide more information as it becomes available and is verified."


Among the science Cygnus was to carry to the space station was a study to enable the first space-based observations of meteors entering Earth’s atmosphere, as well as a number of student investigations from around the world.

Cygnus was scheduled to arrive at the station and be berthed to the Earth having port of the Harmony Node on November 2.

Less than twelve hours after the failed launch of Antares, the Russian Progress 57 resupply craft will launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 6:45 a.m., with docking to the Pirs Docking Compartment just over six hours later.

More to follow shortly..

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Meeting a Man Who Went to the Moon and Back

On September 16 2014, former NASA astronaut and Apollo 15 Command Module Pilot, Al Worden, gave a lecture in Limerick IT's Millenium Theatre in Limerick City.

The lecture was organised as part of the Share Learn Inspire event in which Worden gave fascinating insights into his early career as an Air Force pilot, as well as his experiences on his voyage to the Moon and back in 1971. The stage was set for a magnificent night, and I think I speak for everyone in attendance in saying that we got value for money for sure!

The doors of the Millenium Theatre in LIT's state of the art campus opened at 6:45 p.m. In an effort to make the most out of this Apollo 15 Astronaut Experience, I arrived there pretty early with my father so that I could get the opportunity to shake the hand and meet the man who guided the Apollo 15 Command Module to the Moon and back.

I had only ever met one astronaut before- when I was lucky enough to interview ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli in Dublin three years ago. However, for some reason, this encounter felt that bit different. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I was about to have my picture taken with a man who spent three days orbiting the Moon by himself, and the first man conduct a spacewalk, or Extra-Vehicular Activity(EVA) on the journey home from the Moon, forty three years ago. Either way I have to admit I was kind of nervous!

However, these nerves were soon put to rest when Al greeted me and my dad with a great big smile and a handshake- how cool was that! So we had our photos taken. Al was wearing a suit and tie, with the NASA Astronaut Pin stuck onto his blazer. And here I was, wearing a black sports jacket with a space shuttle mission patch stuck onto the chest. In an effort to look as much like a wannabe astronaut as possible, I also brought along my lucky NASA lapel pin for the added touch!

Apollo 15 CMP Al Worden and I before the lecture.

Before the rest of the audience showed up and things got busy, I went back over to Al to ask him a question. At the moment there are divided opinions regarding the next move NASA will take in its efforts to some day fulfill the goal of landing a man on Mars. I asked if he thought going back to the Moon to practice things such as landing, rendezvous and docking, all key elements of a journey to another heavenly body, would be a good idea. He looked up at me, smiled and slowly shook his head. What seemed like a good idea to me, didn't seem like such a good idea to him.

"I think the Moon is nearly acting as an obstacle on our route to Mars", he told me.

I then asked if he thought the International Space Station was providing a sufficient platform that would allow us to take the next step and explore other planets in our solar system. This time thankfully, he agreed! He said the best thing we could do is to turn the space station from the orbiting laboratory it is today, into an inter-planetary gas station, which would certainly make things a whole lot easier for spacecraft making the long journey to the red planet in years to come.

It was fast approaching eight o'clock, and it was time to take our seats.

The lecture kicked off with a short speech from Paul Ryan, founder of the Apollo 15 Experience, and without whom this evening would not have been possible. Paul introduced Dr Norah Patten, Communications and Outreach Manager with the Irish Centre for Composites Research. Norah told us about the links between Ireland and science on the ISS. We learned of the St Nessan's community college in Limerick, and their experiment which flew to the station earlier this year aboard the Orbital Sciences Cygnus cargo craft. The experiment examined the effects of microgravity on reinforced concrete using Irish Cement.

Now for the main event- a speech from Al Worden, Apollo 15 CMP.

Al began by saying what a privilege it was for him to be invited to Ireland, and how impressed he was with the places he had visited during his tour of Limerick.

Worden visiting local schools. credit: broadsheet.ie

Worden described his training as a test pilot, in particular at the Empire Test Pilot's School in Farnborough, England and how it gave him a great launch pad that enabled him to join the astronaut corps in 1966. Al made an effort to get the youngsters in the audience to dream big, by telling them that when he was a kid growing up, there were no such thing as astronauts!

He moved on to describe his voyage into space as the Command Module Pilot for Apollo 15, as well as all the hardships, training, and funny stories that went along with it. He lauded Apollo 15 as man's most daring mission to the Moon, and told his experiences about his own spacewalk to retrieve film from a camera that he got to do while on the way home from the Moon.

He joked that while he was alone in lunar orbit, mission commander Dave Scott and Lunar Module Pilot Jim Irwin explored the surface below, he though about leaving them behind, which was greeted with roars of laughter from the audience. He treated us with fabulous images and video of his mission to the Moon, but there was one image in particular he showed that really had an affect on me personally.
Al showed us a magnificent shot of the crescent Earth that he took while in lunar orbit. Here we see just how small and fragile our home planet really is. He put it simply- "That's home."

Of course everyone in the room was amazed by such a photo because it shows the Earth as it really is. Out there in the blackness of space. Alone. I guess it had such an impact on me because here was a man who had seen the fragile oasis on which we live, from a distance of a quarter of a million miles away. I'm sure I wasn't the only one in the audience who felt that extra sense of responsibility for taking care of our planet that bit more. You can see what Al had to say about the matter for himself in the above video.

The Apollo 15 mission was a success in every sense of the word. The only failure being that one of the three parachutes didn't deploy after atmospheric re-entry(This didn't make any real difference, because the CM was designed to be able to land with only two chutes), and also the fact that Al couldn't grow much of a beard, having spent two weeks in space!

The event came to a close when Al answered a few audience questions on the subject of the Apollo 1 fire, the Space Shuttle as well as the future of the manned space programme. 

On behalf of everyone in attendance that night, I would like to sincerely thank Paul Ryan, organiser of this magnificent event, Dr Norah Patten of ICOMP, and of course, Mr Al Worden, for coming to Ireland to tell his stories of his adventure to the Moon.

On a sidenote

I had learned about a week before the event at LIT, that ESA astronaut Leopold Eyharts was coming to Dublin to give a lecture in Dublin's Science Gallery. What a shame that the two events were on the same day! I guess astronauts coming to Ireland are like buses. They rarely come along, and then two show up at the exact same time!

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