Tag Archives: ISS

The Falcon has landed — after lifting off from the same pad as Apollo 11!

This morning, a Falcon 9 rocket roared into space from Kennedy Space Center’s LC-39A, the first commercial launch to lift off from this NASA launch facility.  (Previous Florida launches of the Falcon 9 were from the neighboring Cape Canaveral Air Station, operated by the USAF.)  Fittingly, this was still a NASA mission; the payload is the CRS-10 Dragon cargo mission to the International Space Station.  But the next flight won’t be; the next flight will deliver the EchoStar 23 commercial commsat to geosynchronous transfer orbit.

LC-39A was originally built to support launches of the gigantic Saturn V for the Apollo mission, and so everything is proportionately gigantic on this pad.  Falcon 9 is the smallest rocket ever to fly from it, but later it is planned to support the massive Falcon Heavy, a triple-core variant that will be the most powerful rocket in the world when it flies, and that is the real reason for using this pad.

Today’s mission was completely successful, including the first daylight shore landing of a Falcon 9 first stage.  That stage landed on the existing SpaceX landing pad at Cape Canaveral.  And there’s some great footage.  😉

Full newscast:

And here is spectacular drone photography of the landing:


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Commercial spaceflight makes another step forward: NanoRacks will send a new airlock to the ISS!

It’s been pretty exciting watching commercial spaceflight getting off the ground.  It’s gone slower than I’d like, but this is untested ground, after all.  Commercial utilization of the ISS has been frustratingly slow, hampered by the reduced crew size following the Bush-era reduction in the ISS plan and further hampered by the red tape involved in getting an experiment to the ISS via NASA.  That red tape is so slow in large part because NASA’s whole philosophy towards getting stuff on Station was developed during the Shuttle era, and heavily favors crew safety over other considerations.  This is completely understandable, of course, but it means experiments can wait years to fly, which makes it all but impossible to do follow-up experiments on the same grant as the first one, and effectively forces student projects to be simple, standalone experiments.

NanoRacks, a Texas company that works with NASA to fly experiments commercially aboard the ISS, has found a way to simplify this process.  Instead of each entity seeking to fly an experiment having to go through the whole process with NASA, NanoRacks takes care of all the paperwork and testing, and is able to greatly expedite it by offering experiment equipment that’s already approved by NASA and easily modified to suit a particular experiment’s needs without requiring a full recertification, and also designed to fit easily into an astronaut’s busy schedule.  They also provide nanosatellite deployment services, via a dispenser aboard the ISS that can be loaded via the Kibo lab’s airlock.

And now, they’re looking to expand those services they already offer.  With the ISS crew complement set to increase when Starliner and Dragon 2 enter service, having more ways to get customers for ISS is very much a good thing, and NanoRacks is keen to keep at the forefront of that.  They have just signed a deal with Boeing and NASA to build another airlock for the space station.   NanoRacks will build the Airlock Module, and Boeing will build its Passive Common Berthing Mechanism, which will allow it to be permanently installed on the Tranquility node (after PMA-3 is relocated in support of the Commercial Crew program).  Airlock will permit larger payloads to be deployed than can currently be serviced via Kibo’s airlock, and also free NanoRacks from reliance on a government operated module.

If all goes well, Airlock Module is expected to launch in 2019, although NanoRacks has not yet procured a launch vehicle or been assigned a position in the ISS launch manifest.

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HTV space debris experiment is a bust — better luck next time!

The Kuonotori-6, the latest H2 Transfer Vehicle (HTV) to fly from Japan to the ISS, also carried a space debris experiment.  After completing its cargo delivering mission (including delivery of the first set of new batteries for the station’s main power system) and loading up with trash and an old set of batteries, it departed the ISS on January 27.  Not ones to waste a good opportunity, JAXA had equipped it to carry out additional experiments between undocking and its ultimate fiery demise.  For this mission, it carried an electrodynamic tether which, when fully unspooled, would stretch half a mile into space, to test the effectiveness of such a system in passively lowering a satellite’s orbit purely through interaction with the Earth’s ionosphere.

Unfortunately, they ran into problems during deployment.  First, one of the four bolts holding the tether’s counterweight failed to separate on the first try.  On a second attempt, telemetry indicated that the bolt finally separated, but the tether still would not deploy.  Possibly the bolt did not fully separate, or possibly there was some other problem with the mechanism; JAXA engineers will certainly be closely evaluating the telemetry before attempting the experiment again.  One thing is certain: they will not be attempting again with this spacecraft: after abandoning the tether deployment, Kuonotori-6 was deorbited last Sunday, making a self-destructive reentry over the South Pacific.

Still, Japanese engineers do not tend to give up easily, so I expect they will try again.  They’ll have additional opportunities: although HTV does not fly as often as many other ISS cargo ships, it is vital for delivery of the new batteries for the main power system.  New methods for disposal of space hardware is urgently needed; if successful, tethers like this could even be used on things like spent rocket stages, since it is a completely passive system and doesn’t weigh much.  Being able to dispose of spent hardware means it doesn’t stick around to contribute to the growing problem of space debris.

So here’s hoping they can get it working next time!

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Cargo to the ISS resumes, with HTV “Kounotori-6”

An H-2B rocket blasted off from Tanegashima Launch Center in Japan early this morning, carrying the sixth H-2 Transfer Vehicle on its climb to the International Space Station.  Alas, there was not much time to add cargo following the loss of the last Progress, and HTV cannot make up for the lost propellant (as with the retirement of ATV, Progress is the only means of refueling Zvezda), but it adds a lot of comfortable margin into the stores on board ISS.

The principle payload of this mission is a six new lithium-ion batteries carried in Kounotori-6’s unpressurized payload bay.  These large batteries are intended to replace the batteries in the power supply of the US segment. A s they are lighter and more efficient, one battery is able to do the job of two of the old batteries.  Later on, they will be extracted from Kounotori-6 and subsequently installed in the S4 truss via Dextre, the “Canada Hand” Special Purpose Dextrous Manipulator.  Dextre will also pull nine of the old batteries and stow them aboard Kounotori-6 for disposal when the spacecraft deliberately deorbits after its mission.  Additional batteries will go up on the next three HTV flights.

The pressurized compartment will deliver food, water, clothing, tools, spare parts, research payloads, computer equipment, spacesuit components, a small amount of Russian cargo, a new radiation monitoring experiment, some new cameras to be mounted outside the Kibo module later on for JAXA, fresh CO2 scrubber components, and a dozen CubeSats, which will be deployed over the next few months via the Kibo module’s airlock and NanoRack dispenser.

After the spacecraft is finished with its ISS mission, it will continue to perform science; just like Cygnus, scientists have found ways to make use of the spacecraft after its primary mission is complete.  In this case, JAXA will be testing deployment of an electrodynamic tether to see how practical this could be for cheaply altering a spacecraft’s orbit.  If it works, such a system could be placed on future spacecraft to ensure their disposal at the end of their missions.  Right now, most dead spacecraft simply remain in orbit until they fall naturally, and this presents a debris hazard.

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Rocket failure updates: Soyuz-U and Falcon 9

First off, the good news!  SpaceX is now confident enough in their procedural fixes for Falcon 9 that they have announced their next launch date: December 16early January, from Vandenberg AFB.  Payload would be a set of ten next-generation Iridium satellites.  [Edited per SpaceX news release 12/7.  Original date was reported on SpaceflightNow, but I’m not sure where they got it, since it doesn’t appear anywhere on SpaceX’s website.]

Second, Roscosmos has convened a failure investigation board and begun combing through the data from the failure of Soyuz-U with Progress MS-04.  This was to have been the next-to-last flight of the Soyuz-U.  Everything appears to have been nominal through the first and second stages of flight, but during the third stage, something went badly wrong.  One account has a premature engine shutdown command issued due to a deviation from flight path so severe the third stage’s gyro stabilization system stalled, and then Progress breaking away due to the strain.  Another account has the flight proceeding normally until for some unexplained reason the spacecraft separated.  It will take time to sift through the data and come to an answer; at present in Russian media, it seems the respective manufacturers of the rocket and the spacecraft are attempting to point fingers at one another.

Meanwhile, the impact region has been located.  Russian authorities are combing the Tuva region for debris, and one piece appears to have been found by residents of Tos-Tevek, possibly a propellant tank (as Progress carries not just its own propellant but also supplies for ISS propulsion system).


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Progress MS-04 lost on takeoff

Just days after the reentry of the latest Cygnus cargo vehicle, Russia has lost a Progress spacecraft.  Something went wrong during the third stage of the flight, and the vehicle broke up and reentered over the Tuva Republic of eastern Russia, just north of Mongolia.  Most of the vehicle is believed to have burned up in the upper atmosphere.  It will take time to determine exactly what happened, but initial indications suggest a premature separation of spacecraft and launch vehicle.

Progress was carrying 710 kg of propellant for Zvezda, 420 kg of water, 52 kg of oxygen, 315 kg of food, 115 kg of miscellaneous gear including medical and hygiene supplies, 83 kg of gear for the Russian segment’s toilet system, 67 kg of air purification hardware, an Orlan suit, cables, cameras, science experiements, and 87 kg of supplies for NASA (including equipment for the environmental control and water recycling systems).  All of that of course has now been lost.


Consumables on the station are within comfortable margins at present.  The next scheduled cargo flight is a Japanese HTV on Dec 9.

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Happy Thanksgiving! Even in space!

My family and I had a fabulous Thanksgiving with a lot of extended family and people we don’t get to see very often; it was truly delightful.  To all who celebrate Thanksgiving, I hope you all had a wonderful day as well!

250 miles above us all, the ISS crew also celebrated, sharing this American holiday with their international crewmates:


They had turkey, sweet potatoes, corn, and more.  Here’s hoping it tasted every bit as good as the stuff we here on the ground got to eat!  (And it might have; NASA’s food scientists are getting pretty creative these days.)

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