Sunday, April 10, 2016

SpaceX Dragon Returns to International Space Station

The SpaceX Dragon cargo vehicle has arrived at the International Space Station on its eighth flight to resupply the orbiting complex.

The Commercial Resupply Services(CRS)-8 was captured by ESA astronaut Tim Peake using the station's robotic arm, Canadarm2. Capture was confirmed to have taken place at 7:23 a.m. Eastern Time as the station flew 250 miles over the Pacific Ocean.
Dragon and Cygnus docked to the International Space Station simultaneously
for the first time. credit: NASA TV

Shortly after grapple, the Expedition 47 Flight Engineer informed teams of flight controllers in Mission Control in Houston and in SpaceX Headquarters in Hawthorne California of his success;

"Looks like we've captured a Dragon" 

Two hours later at 9:57 a.m. robotic operators in Mission Control in Houston slowly berthed the vehicle to the Earth-facing port of the station's Harmony module.

Today's arrival is an historic one, as it marks the first time that two commercially-built cargo vehicles will be docked to the International Space Station simultaneously. Orbital ATK's Cygnus cargo craft is currently bolted to the Unity module of the ISS having arrived on March 26.

It also marks only the second time in the history of the International Space Station programme that six visiting vehicles have been docked to the station at once.

Dragon, making its Return to Flight to the ISS following a catastrophic launch anomaly in June 2015, launched atop a Falcon 9 rocket at 9:43 p.m. Eastern Time on Friday April 8 from Cape Canaveral carrying 6,900 pounds/3,130 kilograms worth of science research, crew supplies and hardware to the orbiting laboratory in support of the Expedition 47 and 48 crews.

Just minutes after first stage separation, the rocket's first stage fell back to Earth, fired its thrusters and deployed its landing legs before successfully landing upright for the first time on a barge at sea. Friday's activities marked the second time that Elon Musk's company has accomplished such a feat - the first coming back on December 21.

Today's arrival will bring to an end the recent period of busy traffic to and from the International Space Station. CRS-8 is the fourth visiting vehicle to visit the laboratory in as many weeks, following the arrival of the Soyuz TMA-20M, Cygnus CRS OA-6 and the Progress 63P.

On April 15, robotic operators will once again take control of Canadarm2 and remove the much anticipated Bigelow Expandable Activity Module(BEAM), and berth it to the aft port of the station's Tranquility module.


Bigelow Expandable Activity Module(BEAM)


BEAM is an expandable habitat built by Bigelow Aerospace that will remain on station for a period of two years. NASA and its partners are currently investigating the practicalities of using expandable habitats in the near-Earth environment as well as on future missions to the Moon or Mars.

This will be the first time an expandable habitat will be docked to the station, so the procedure will take some time, allowing teams to closely observe the expansion process as well as the safety of the crew and the station. During this time the module will expand from its packed dimensions of 7.75 feet in diameter and 5.7 feet long, to its pressurised size of 10,5 feet in diameter and 12 feet long.
The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module(BEAM) being loaded into the
trunk of the SpaceX Dragon capsule at Cape Canaveral. credit: NASA

The expandable module is made up of soft fabrics instead of metal which allows the habitat to be packed to a small volume during launch and later expanded to its full size in space. Two radiation sensors, temperature and micrometeorite impacts inside BEAM will help scientists and engineers to better understand thermal, radiation and long-term leak performance of expandable habitats.

The habitat will be inflated by the crew at the end of May and it is expected that crew members will enter BEAM twice or three times per six month increment to swap out sensors that need to be returned to Earth for analysis.



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Friday, April 8, 2016

SpaceX Dragon Returns to Flight Bound for the International Space Station

The SpaceX Dragon capsule has successfully launched from Space Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on a mission to deliver science to the International Space Station.

The Commercial Resupply Services(CRS)-8 launched atop a Falcon 9 rocket at 9:43 p.m. Eastern Time under clear skies carrying science research, crew supplies and hardware to the orbiting laboratory in support of the Expedition 47 and 48 crews.
Dragon on its eight flight to the International Space Station launches
atop a Falcon 9 rocket at 10:43 p.m. from Cape Canveral in Florida.
credit: SpaceX

Just minutes after first stage separation, the rocket's first stage fell back to Earth, fired its thrusters and deployed its landing legs before successfully landing upright for the first time on a barge at sea. Today marks the second time that Elon Musk's company has accomplished such a feat - the first coming back on December 21.

The vehicle will arrive at the space station on Sunday April 10 loaded with 6,900 pounds/3,130 kilograms of science and payload to further advance the research capabilities of the International Space Station. From the Cupola, ESA astronaut Tim Peake will capture Dragon with the station's robotic arm, Canadarm-2, before flight controllers in Mission Control in Houston berth Dragon to the Earth-facing port of the station's Harmony module a few hours later.

Today's launch marks the Return to Flight of Dragon having been lost shortly after liftoff on its seventh mission to resupply the complex in June 2015.

Sunday's arrival will be an historic one, as it marks the first time that two commercially-built cargo vehicles will be docked to the International Space Station simultaneously. Orbital ATK's Cygnus cargo craft is currently berthed to the Unity module of the ISS.

On April 15, robotic operators will once again take control of Canadarm-2 and remove the much anticipated Bigelow Expandable Activity Module(BEAM), and berth it to the aft port of the station's Tranquility module.


Bigelow Expandable Activity Module(BEAM)

BEAM is an expandable habitat built by Bigelow Aerospace that will remain on station for a period of two years. NASA and its partners are currently investigating the practicalities of using expandable habitats in the near-Earth environment as well as on future missions to the Moon or Mars.

This will be the first time an expandable habitat will be docked to the station, so the procedure will take some time, allowing teams to closely observe the expansion process as well as the safety of the crew and the station. During this time the module will expand from its packed dimensions of 7.75 feet in diameter and 5.7 feet long, to its pressurised size of 10,5 feet in diameter and 12 feet long.
The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module(BEAM) being loaded into the
trunk of the SpaceX Dragon capsule at Cape Canaveral. credit: NASA

The expandable module is made up of soft fabrics instead of metal which allows the habitat to be packed to a small volume during launch and later expanded to its full size in space. Two radiation sensors, temperature and micrometeorite impacts inside BEAM will help scientists and engineers to better understand thermal, radiation and long-term leak performance of expandable habitats.

The habitat will be inflated by the crew at the end of May and it is expected that crew members will enter BEAM twice or three times per six month increment to swap out sensors that need to be returned to Earth for analysis.

The arrival of Dragon on Sunday will bring to an end the recent period of busy traffic to and from the International Space Station. CRS-8 will be the fourth visiting vehicle to visit the laboratory in as many weeks, following the arrival of the Soyuz TMA-20M, Cygnus CRS OA-6 and the Progress 63P.

Thank you for reading Irish Space Blog!

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

One Year Crew Returns from International Space Station

Astronaut Scott Kelly and cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko have returned to Earth after spending almost one year living and working in low-Earth orbit aboard the International Space Station.

The One Year crew alongside their Soyuz commander Sergey Volkov bid farewell to the International Space Station as the hatches between the station and the Soyuz TMA-18M spacecraft were closed at 9:43 p.m. GMT on March 1.
Year in Space crew members Kelly and Kornienko shortly after landing in Kazakhstan
after spending 340 days aboard the International Space Station.
credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

The Soyuz craft departed the complex a couple of hours later when it undocked from the space station's Poisk module at 1:02 a.m. on the morning of March 2.

Following a series of orbital maneuvers, the Soyuz performed its de-orbit burn to reduce the spacecraft's speed and altitude for a fiery re-entry through the Earth's atmosphere.

Just over three hours after departing the ISS, Volkov, Kelly and Kornienko landed their vehicle in the remote steppe of Kazakhstan at 4:26 a.m. - bringing the Year in Space mission to an end. The crew were then placed in reclining chairs next to their Soyuz before being carried a short distance to an awaiting medical tent to get the crew out of their Sokol launch and entry suits to participate in brief field tests.

These field test studies are conducted to see the effect that long term weightlessness has on the astronaut's ability to stand from a seated position, walk through obstacles and stand upright. This will help investigators further understand what future space farers will be able to do once they've landed on Mars having spent months in a weightless commute.

In a recent interview with NASA TV, Kelly was asked what he thought was the biggest accomplishment of this flight - "We absolutely accomplished an incredible amount of work both on the US Operational Segment and on the Russian Segment."

"Our time here has demonstrated not only the capability for us to stay in space for a long time and to do well, but also the capability of ground teams to support us, the sytsems that keep us alive and the resuspply in a way that is forward thinking towards a potential flight to Mars. We've collected a lot of data during our time here and that data is something that's going to be analysed later.. but I think it's been a great success and a real privilege to part of it."

Over the past 340 days, Kelly and Kornienko:

  • Completed 5,440 orbits of the Earth.
  • Ran over 640 miles on the station's treadmill.
  • Travelled 143,846,525 miles - roughly the distance from Earth to Mars. A return journey to the red planet is expected to last 500 days or longer.
  • Conducted over 400 scientific experiments during the course of their stint aboard the complex.


Coming Home: Kelly, Volkov and Kornienko tightly packed inside their Soyuz
credit: NASA
"Misha and I are only one data point. You need a lot more numbers to draw specific conclusions but I'm hoping what we find is a lot of information that will help us eventually continue on our path toward Mars."

Another unique investigation conducted over the past year is the Twins Study. Former NASA astronaut Mark Kelly, Scott Kelly's identical twin has served as the control subject for his brother on orbit. This study hopes to investigate if the effect of long-duration spaceflight has any difference on the body on a genetic level.

Today's landing brings to an end the fourth spaceflight for Scott Kelly who has now logged 520 days in space and sets the record for the most time in space for an American. Mikhail Kornienko now logs 516 across two space station expeditions. Soyuz commander Sergey Volkov returns to Earth with 548 days in space across three long-duration stays aboard the International Space Station.

The departure of the Soyuz marked the official beginning of Expedition 47 after Kelly handed over the reigns of the orbiting laboratory to Tim Kopra of NASA. Kopra remains aboard the station with cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and ESA astronaut Tim Peake.

The trio will be joined on March 19 when the Soyuz TMA-20M docks to the vacant docking port on Poisk - bringing Alexei Ovchinin, Oleg Skripochka and Jeff Williams to the station for a six month mission.

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Friday, February 19, 2016

Cygnus Cargo Craft Departs International Space Station

Orbital ATK's Cygnus cargo ship has departed the International Space Station after a successful 72 day mission to resupply the orbiting laboratory.

Having been unberthed from the Unity Module of the complex earlier in the day, Expedition 46 Commander Scott Kelly and Flight Engineer Tim Kopra used the station's 57-foot robotic arm to release the unmanned Cygnus at 12:26 p.m. GMT as the two vehicles flew 400 kilometers over Bolivia. This positioned Cygnus for a fiery re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean on Saturday.
Cygnus departs the International Space Station(File photo)
credit: NASA
On its fourth mission to resupply the space station, the vehicle nicknamed "S.S. Deke Slayton II" launched atop an Atlas V rocket carrying over 3,500 kilograms of cargo from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral in Florida on December 6.

Among the cargo which served the Expedition 45/46 crews was a new life sciences facility and a micro-satellite deployer, as well as food and other crew provisions.

Today's departure of Deke Slayton II also marks the beginning of a busy period of traffic from visiting vehicles to and from the station. 

On March 1 the year-long mission to the ISS conducted by Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko will come to an end as the pair undock their Soyuz TMA-18M from the Poisk module on the Russian segment of the International Space Station alongside Sergey Volkov.
Kelly and Kornienko have been living aboard the station since their arrival on March 28 2015. By the time they return to Earth they will have spent 340 days in space and traveled over 140 million miles.

The departure of Kelly, Kornienko and Volkov will clear the way for the arrival of the next Soyuz to bring three new crew members to the International Space Station. Cosmonauts Oleg Skripochka, Alexey Ovchinin and astronaut Jeff Williams will dock their Soyuz TMA-20M to the vacant docking port on Poisk on March 19. This will be followed just three days later by the launch of the next Cygnus vehicle on it's fifth flight to the station.

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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.

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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.