Thursday, February 20, 2014

Cygnus Completes its First Mission to ISS

The Orbital Sciences Cygnus cargo craft has completed its first resupply mission to the International Space Station, burning up in the Earth's atmosphere on February 19 after spending over a month docked to the station.
Cygnus was released by Canadarm2 at 11:41 a.m. Irish Time

Expedition 38 flight engineers Koichi Wakata and Mike Hopkins, working from the Cupola, used the station's 57 foot-long Canadarm2 robotic arm to detach Cygnus from the Earth facing port of the Harmony Module and manipulate it into a position for release.

Hopkins, who is making his first space flight, took control of Canadarm2, before releasing Cygnus at 11:41 a.m. Irish Time, as the station flew 260 miles above the Atlantic Ocean.

Now loaded with trash and other unwanted items the crew no longer needed, Wakata and Hopkins commanded Cygnus to perform a 90 second departure burn to move a safe distance away from the ISS.

Cygnus, which is named after the late Gordon C. Fullerton, performed a series of orbital maneuvers and de-orbit burns on Wednesday, before burning up in the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean later that evening.

With the departure of Cygnus, attention turns to the next launch of a cargo ship from US soil. The Space X Dragon capsule will make its third resupply flight to the International Space Station, with the launch of Space X-3 from Cape Canaveral on March 16.

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Friday, January 24, 2014

The Challenges of a One-Year Mission to the ISS

In March 2015, one astronaut and one cosmonaut will launch from Kazakhstan to spend one year living and working in space aboard the International Space Station.

Kornienko and Kelly will spend one year living on
the International Space Station in 2015
NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian Federal Space Agency cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, will launch atop a Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan along with fellow cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, scheduled for March 2015. Kelly and Kornienko will live aboard the orbiting complex for one year, before returning to Earth in 2016.

The one year mission will allow scientists to see how the human body will adapt to the microgravity living and working conditions found aboard the ISS, as well as examining the psychological effects of living off the planet for one year.  The scientific community will also be carefully watching how Kelly and Kornienko re-adapt to life back on Earth after spending a year in low-Earth orbit. Changes in vision are just one of the many side effects that have been observed in some astronauts returning from long-duration spaceflights, and researchers want to learn more about its root causes and develop countermeasures to minimize this risk.

The duo will also have to combat bone and muscle loss (which happens to every astronaut when they fly in space for several months) by exercising for 2.5 hours each day, using the station's treadmills, bike machine known as CEVIS(stands for Cycle Ergometer with Vibration Isolation and Stabilization System) and a weights machine called ARED(stands for Advanced Resistive Exercise Device). For a six month mission, astronauts can lose up to 15% muscle volume.

Just in case you were wondering, this will not be the first time human beings will be sent into orbit for a year-long mission. In 1994, cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov spent over 437 days living aboard the Russian space station Mir, before returning to Earth in 1995. Despite suffering from a clear decline in morale for the first two months of his mission, Polyakov was able to regain his pre-flight mood for the rest of the mission.

Scott Kelly with Robonaut 2 during Expedition 26
Upon returning to Earth in his Soyuz capsule after a successful mission, Polyakov decided he would rather walk the small distance from his spacecraft to a nearby reclining chair, demonstrating that humans would be able to walk on the surface of Mars after several weightless months in transit from Earth. This extra-long duration mission showed that the human body could deal with the strains and stresses of living in space for such an extended period of time. However, Kelly and Kornienko will be the first space farers to spend a year living on the International Space Station.

Recently I began asking astronauts who have spent time living and working aboard the ISS about the one year mission, and what they thought the biggest challenges will be for Kelly and Kornienko.

ESA astronaut and Expedition 26/27 Flight Engineer Paolo Nespoli, who spent six months living on the ISS in 2010 & 2011, told me that now is a good time to an attempt a mission of this nature:

 "I feel we need to know more about what happens to the body and what happens to the mind when you stay in space for a long time, so I think that now is a good time and I think we should do it."

Nespoli went on to mention that the technology we have on the space station is far superior to what Polyakov had at his disposal on Mir, and how it will be easier to connect with family friends and Mission Control teams all over the world.

"There was a Russian cosmonaut who stayed in space for well over a year, so the Russians have done this in a more restricted and confined environment than what is today space station, where we have internet, telephone, teleconference capabilities so we can talk to Mission Control whenever we want".

I also asked Doug Wheelock, who, like Nespoli, lived aboard the ISS alongside Scott Kelly, about his thoughts on the upcoming mission, and what challenges would be faced by the one year crew. He went on to say that the biggest obstacles would be dealing with the mental stresses of living off the planet for such a long time:

"I think the greatest challenge will be managing the physiology & psychology of isolation, emotion, & senses... it is critical to stay in the moment".

Finally, I recently spoke with Expedition 35/36 Flight Engineer Chris Cassidy, who returned from the International Space Station back in September 2013, about his thoughts on the one year mission:

"In my experience on coming home day, as we were closing the hatch I thought to myself "What would I think if I was halfway done right now? How would I feel? What would I need? To be honest I felt a little accumulative fatigue- when you're living at your workplace, and you can't shut the door to work and go home in the evening and kick back and watch Monday Night Football- you're there all the time and it eventually catches up to you".

Cassidy, who completed a total of three spacewalks, or EVAs, during his most recent flight, also had a few ideas regarding how the crew doesn't become fatigued with the heavy workload that comes with living aboard the orbiting outpost, suggesting a longer weekend from time to time in the second half of the mission:

"I think my recommendation would be in months 7 through 12, the second half of the year is to have a three day weekend every month because you really need a good recharge. Sunday is a really good day to have a recharge, and to have an extra Sunday thrown in the mix every now and then would go a long way".

All in all, it appears that everyone in science and space exploration fields are confident about the one year mission. Both Kelly and Kornienko have lived aboard the ISS before, so it's fair to say that we have a very experienced crew on our hands, logging a total of 356 days in space between them.

It is hoped that data recorded from this 2015 mission will assist teams on the ground in their understanding of the effects of long terms weightlessness on the body, and what it may be like for humans if they were sent on a mission to Mars in the future. After Kelly and Kornienko return to Earth in 2016, we will no doubt, be one small step closer to the human exploration of the Red Planet.


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Saturday, December 28, 2013

External Cameras Cause Problems for Russian Spacewalkers

A pair of cameras which were scheduled to be fixed to the exterior of the International Space Station today, December 27, have caused problems for two Russian spacewalkers during installation.

The Urthecast cameras, which launched aboard the Progress 53 resupply ship, are designed to send live images of the Earth back to viewers on the ground. They were due to be installed on the exterior of the station's Zvezda Service Module.

A view from a window in Zvezda of today's spacewalk
credit: NASA

Expedition 38 spacewalkers Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy began the EVA at 13:00 Irish Time to get to work on a spacewalk which was scheduled to last seven hours. The duo quickly got to work on getting all their tools in order before commencing the installation of one high resolution camera(HRC) and one medium resolution camera(MRC) on Zvezda.

Kotov and Ryazanskiy, having initially installed the HRC, were told that the telemetry received
from the camera itself by Russian Flight Control Teams in Korolyev, Russia appeared to be in good working order.

However, after installing the MRC a few hours later, the pair were told that telemetry and circuitry received by teams on the ground were not what they should have been, and the decision was then made to uninstall both cameras and return inside the space station in order to try and find a solution and work the problem.

During today's EVA, Kotov jettisoned a cable reel used to install the cameras opposite of the station's direction of travel for disposal.

The space walkers were then instructed to take detailed photographs of the electrical connectors mated earlier for additional review.

In addition to this, an experiment known as Vsplesk, installed in 2008 to measure seismic effects using high-energy particle streams in the near-Earth environment was also jettisoned.

Because of the camera problems, some tasks that were outlined for today's EVA could not be completed. As a result, the spacewalk lasted 8 hours and 7 minutes, which is now the longest Russian EVA ever to be completed.

Today's spacewalk was the third EVA to take place outside the space station this week. However, it was in no way related to the two spacewalks completed by NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins and Rick Mastracchio to replace a faulty coolant pump on the station's starboard truss.

It is unclear as to when the Urthecast cameras will eventually be installed on Zvezda.

More to follow..

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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

NASA Postpones Cygnus Launch Ahead of Trio of Spacewalks to Repair Faulty Pump Module

NASA has postponed the launch of the Orbital Sciences' Cygnus cargo resupply vehicle to the International Space Station, after the space agency announced that a trio of EVAs will take place outside the station during the Christmas holidays in order to repair a faulty ammonia pump which regulates space station cooling.

Rick Mastracchio tweeted a picture of his EMU

Cygnus, which is making its second visit to the station, was scheduled to launch from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on December 19. Atop an Antares rocket, it will now attempt launch on January 9, with launch occurring no later than January 13 2014.

This postponement will allow Expedition 38 flight engineers Mike Hopkins and Rick Mastrachio to conduct a trio of EVAs outside the orbiting complex in an effort to repair the faulty pump module. These three spacewalks will take place on December 21, 23 and 25. Each EVA will commence at 12:10 p.m. Irish Time.

 They will replace it with an existing spare that is stored on an external stowage platform. The pump is associated with one of the station's two external cooling loops, which circulate ammonia outside the station to keep both internal and external equipment cool.

This is the same pump which was repaired by Expedition 24 flight engineers Doug Wheelock and Tracy Caldwell Dyson, after completing three spacewalks in 2010.

More to follow..

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Thursday, November 21, 2013

JFK and the Moon

"I believe this nation should commit itself, to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon, and returning him safely to the Earth."

If you haven't heard these words before, I suggest you look them up.

These are the words of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, as he outlined his plans to land an American on the Moon in a speech to a Joint Session of Congress on May 25,
Kennedy addresses Congress- May 25 1961

Just twenty days before Kennedy made this speech, Alan Shepard became the first American to fly in space, after completing a successful sub-orbital flight on Freedom 7. Now, less than three weeks later, the president challenged the nation and its space agency to land on the Moon in just nine years. Time to get to work!

It wasn't long before the hard work really got started. Project Mercury was in full swing, and by May 1963, six Americans had flown in space- four of them achieving orbital flight.

There were now seven years left for America to land a man on the Moon, and everything was going according to plan. NASA was now in the process of developing it's two-man spacecraft for Project Gemini- one step closer to Apollo. However, 50 years ago, on a fateful November afternoon in Dallas, Texas, a young, ambitious American president was gunned down.

The assassination of President Kennedy is a discussion for another day, and be debated by people who know far more about that day than me! But all we need to worry about here is that the man who challenged the nation to go to the Moon was no more.

Despite Kennedy's assassination, NASA continued to press towards the Moon, with Project Gemini launching a two-man crew into low-Earth orbit to demonstrate techniques and gather scientific data needed before any lunar mission could be attempted.

Ed White during Gemini 4 EVA
A total of ten Gemini missions(Gemini 3-12) were flown between 1965 and 1966. Programme highlights included Ed White becoming the first American to walk in space, and the crews of Gemini 6 and 7 proving to the world that NASA could perform a rendezvous between two different spacecraft- a vital operation needed for a successful Moon mission.

With yet another fatal setback, this time the loss of the Apollo 1 crew due to a fire in their spacecraft, it was time to step back and look at what mistakes had been made, and how they would be corrected. People were beginning to ask questions about whether or not NASA would actually be able to land on the Moon before Kennedy's deadline.

Gene Cernan(Gemini 9, Apollo 10, Apollo 17) has spoken about what he initially thought of Kennedy's bold statement:

"He challenged us to do what I think most people thought was impossible, including me!"

However, 8 years, 1 month and 26 days after Kennedy pledged to congress to land a Man on the Moon, Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Amstrong became the first man to walk on the lunar surface. Up until then, one half of the president's goal had been achieved- "Land a man on the Moon." After spending 2.5 hours walking on the Moon, it was time to start thinking about the other half of Kennedy's vision, "Returning him safely to the Earth."

After Armstrong and Aldrin, ten more American astronauts walked on the lunar surface, collecting more and more scientific data and samples so scientists back on Earth could try and find the answers to questions like "How old is the Moon?", "What is the Moon made of?", "Could life have ever existed on the Moon?". However, you don't have to be a genius to try and figure out why Kennedy challenged the nation to reach for the Moon. Of course there was the scientific aspect of it, but the main reason was to beat the Soviet Union to it- the race to the Moon.

Perhaps this video of President Kennedy talking to then NASA Administrator James Webb will explain this point further.  

For me, one line in particular from Kennedy stands out more than anything else:

"We shouldn't be spending this kind of money because I'm not that interested in space."

Now if you watched the video, you will understand that JFK doesn't mean he isn't interested in space exploration, but rather that he is only interested in landing a man on the Moon before the Soviets.

People have been questioning whether or not Kennedy was that enthusiastic about space exploration ever since the days of Apollo. 

Politically, landing a man on the Moon was one of JFK's biggest interests. But whether or not he was all that interested on a personal note remains unclear. I guess we will never know!

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Monday, November 18, 2013

MAVEN Launches to Mars to Study Atmosphere of the Red Planet

The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission, has successfully launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

MAVEN on the launch pad
credit: NASA
MAVEN lifted off from Launch Complex 41 atop an Atlas V rocket at 18:28 Irish Time to mark the beginning of a ten month-long journey to the Red Planet.

The spacecraft, due to arrive at Mars in September 2014, will spend one Earth-year conducting its primary mission objectives. MAVEN will do this by using its scientific instruments to sample the uppermost regions of the martian atmosphere at its closest point in its elliptical orbit, just 150km above the surface. At this altitude, the spacecraft can sample the gas and ion composition directly.

At its highest point(6000km), MAVEN will carry out ultraviolet imaging of the entire planet. The altitude in MAVEN's orbit will be lowered five times over the course of the mission, in a maneuver known as a "deep dip." In each deep dip, the spacecraft will fly just 125km above the surface, gathering measurements and information about the well-mixed lower atmosphere of Mars, giving scientists a full profile of the top of the atmosphere.

Mission Objectives
The main goal of MAVEN is to study the upper atmosphere of Mars, and try to understand why the planet has lost so much of its atmosphere over time. Scientists believe that Mars was once a planet that was able to support microbial life, yet today, we see the planet as a cold desert-like inhospitable world.

Did You Know?
MAVEN is NASA's first Mars Mission to be managed by the Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Once MAVEN has finished its primary mission objectives, it is hoped that scientists back on Earth will have a better understanding as to what happened to the atmosphere of Mars, and how did a world that appeared to be teeming with microbial life end up like a desert.

The spacecraft will study how much atmosphere has been lost to space by measuring the current rate of escape, and why this is so.

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Monday, November 11, 2013

Expedition 37 Trio Return to Earth After 5 and a Half Months in Space

The Soyuz TMA-09M spacecraft has returned to Earth, bringing a trio of astronauts and cosmonauts back home after spending the 166 days living and working aboard the International Space Station.

The Soyuz spacecraft, carrying Soyuz commander Fyodor Yurchikin, and Flight Engineers Karen Nyberg and Luca Parmitano, landed in the steppe of Kazakhstan in near perfect conditions at 02:49 Irish Time.

Before all this, the trio bid farewell to their fellow ISS crew members, before hatches between the Soyuz and the station were closed at 20:09 on Sunday night.
Soyuz TMA-09M crew members shortly after landing
credit: NASA

Earlier on that day, Expedition 37 commander Fyodor Yurchikin handed command of the International Space Station over to fellow Russian cosmonaut, Expedition 38 commander Oleg Kotov.

Watch a video of today's change of command ceremony here.

Commander Yurchikin spoke beautifully before handing the reigns over to Kotov:

"It's a great day because we have a road to home, but each day and each night we will have a dream to return here again."

The journey home began when the Soyuz undocked from the aft end of the Zvezda Service Module at 23:26, marking the official beginning of Expedition 38. What is unusual about this particular departure, is that there remains six crew members aboard the complex, instead of the usual three.

Fyodor Yuchikin Waves Goodbye
credit: NASA TV
After performing a series of de-orbit burns to take the spacecraft out of orbit and headed for a landing in Kazakhstan, the Soyuz was spotted by search and recovery forces on site, with its parachute fully deployed. A short time later the spacecraft fired its soft landing engines in what is always a spectacular sight, in order to bring the Soyuz to a final stop.

Those search and recovery forces quickly got to work in extracting Yurchikin, Parmitano and Nyberg from their spacecraft, and sat them down one by one on individual reclining chairs so they could take in the sights and sounds of mother Earth which they had been deprived of for nearly six months.

Today's landing comes just a few days after the Sochi Olympic Torch was carried out on a spacewalk by Kotov and Expedition 37/38 crew member Sergey Ryazanskiy. In fact, the Olympic Torch was one of the items which was also returned in the Soyuz earlier today.

With the return of Soyuz crew, it's full speed ahead for the Expedition 38 crew to continue the science currently being conducted 250 miles above our heads aboard the International Space Station.

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