You may have already heard that the ISS experienced a pressure loss over the weekend. It was so mild that controllers didn’t think it was worth waking the crew; they just told them in the morning and had them go hunt down the source. Alexander Gerst found it, in the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft’s orbital module. He then put his finger over the hole, a solution which controllers drily said would not be a good long-term solution, so the Russian crewmembers patched it up with some epoxy and cloth tape. It’s fortunate that the hole was in the Soyuz orbital module; that’s essentially a disposable portion of the ISS, there only until Soyuz MS-09 returns with its crew. The orbital module itself could be sealed off after separation if there was concern about the Soyuz crew, as it is normally jettisoned prior to reentry. But none of that appears to be necessary; the patch is holding fine.
Initially, this was believed to be a micrometeoroid impact, but the plot has now thickened. As you can see in this picture, the hole is very neat, and next to it is a series of score marks as if a drill bumped along the painted surface inside the orbital module.
Clearly, this hole was made by a human being. Dmitry Rogozin, the controversial director of Roscosmos, has stated that no theories are being ruled out, and that it could have happened on the ground or in space, intentionally or by accident. But industry experts appear to be leaning towards human error on the ground. RSC Energia, the spacecraft’s manufacturer, has launched a comprehensive inspection of all of the Soyuz and Progress spacecraft currently in production. Some sources are also reporting that Energia has found the technician responsible, and industry speculation is that it was an accidental error that the technician attempted to repair with a sealant that eventually dried out and failed on orbit; Russian aerospace does have a blame-centric approach to errors, which does not tend to encourage people to report on their own mistakes.
Progress MS-09 launched to the ISS today and docked with the station just two revolutions later. This is the fastest ever ascent to the station. (It is not the fastest ever ascent to a target in Earth orbit; I believe that record may still be held by Gemini 11, which performed a direct ascent to its Agena target just 94 minutes into the flight. But is definitely the fastest to the ISS.)
USLaunchReport, a disabled veteran-run enterprise on Florida’s Space Coast, provides ground footage of launches, and they got some beautiful footage of this one. Skip ahead about four minutes to staging, where it’s up high, lit by the Sun, and the humid air near the ground is less of an obstacle to photography, and watch to the end when they start to cut in shots of the plume in the background and in the foreground you can see the impressive optical tracking system they got to use for this:
The last Block 4 Falcon 9 flew yesterday, boosting an unmanned Dragon capsule to the ISS for the CRS-15 mission (skip to about 18:50 for the launch):
Since this was the final Block 4 flight, SpaceX did not attempt to recover the booster. This was, however, its second flight; Core 1045 helped launch the TESS satellite on April 18, which is just a 72 day turnaround to its second flight, SpaceX’s fastest reflight to date.
Unpressurized cargo includes the ECOsystem Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment on Space Station (ECOSTRESS) for JPL and a replacement latching end effector for the SSRMS. Pressurized cargo includes:
- Chemical Gardens (a crystal growth experiment)
- an experimental carbon fiber “factory” for the private company Made In Space (the third one flown to date)
- Crew Interactive Mobile (CIMON), a floating spherical robot trained to recognize and interact with European crewmember Alexander Gerst.
- Rodent Research 7, which will study microorganisms in the guts of a colony of “mouseonauts”
- BCAT-CS, a sediment research project
- Three Cubesats called Biarri-Squad for a multinational experiment to study potential military applications for smallsats (these will be experimenting with laser rangefinding and GPS to maintain relative position data)
- Three CubeSats from the Japanese-led multinational Birds-2 project performing a range of technology demonstrator experiments
- One of the Birds-2 CubeSats is Bhutan-1 (aka Bird BTN), the Kingdom of Bhutan’s first satellite
- Another is Bird PHL or Maya-1, the first Filipino CubeSat (not their first satellite
It’s been positively ages since I’ve last posted, but here’s something to get me to come back out: an absolutely stunning video of the Soyuz MS-09 launch. Soyuz launches are always fun, trying to spot things like the Korolev Cross, but this one’s extra special, because it’s got some brand new rocketcam images taken from the exterior of the Soyuz spacecraft during ascent. You get to see launch events that previously have been invisible to the public. Around 3:30, watch for the launch shroud falling away; from there on out, the footage is entirely Soyuz exterior. Around 9:40, watch for the upper stage drifting away, firing a cold gas thruster to ensure a safe separation. The quality isn’t spectacular, but it’s a view we’ve not been allowed to see before. Crew on board are Sergey Prokopyev (Roscosmos, Soyuz commander and spaceflight rookie), flight engineer Alexander Gerst (ESA), and flight surgeon Serena Auñón-Chancellor (NASA, also a spaceflight rookie).
A reused Dragon capsule launched by a reused Falcon 9 first stage is now en route to the ISS. The first stage was not recovered; it’s one of the older model stages, and SpaceX sacrificed it in order to conduct engineering tests during a water landing. There was no attempted fairing recovery, as the Dragon capsule does not require a fairing. But the launch was 100% successful:
Dragon is expected to rendezvous with the station on Wednesday, where it will go free-floating and be captured by the station’s SSRMS, which will pull it in to berth.
The ISS is going into another busy period with upcoming cargo ship movements. First off, the latest Cygnus spacecraft, SS Gene Cernan, was unberthed and released to fly on its own. SS Gene Cernan now moves into the second part of its mission: deploying nanosatellites, conducting another fire test (Saffire-III, the third and final in the series), and then deorbiting itself safely over the ocean.
The next bit of news is SpaceX preparing for their next flight to the ISS. This will mark the return to flight of LC-40, the Cape Canaveral launchpad that was badly damaged in a Falcon 9/Dragon mishap last year. Liftoff is currently scheduled for December 12, and their traditional pre-flight test fire was conducted yesterday, reinaugurating LC-40’s flame trench (skip ahead two minutes for the fire):