I’ve been way busy the last few days, so I regret I have not posted as often as I’d like. But I’ll start making up for that. 😉 First off, the landing of Soyuz MS-02 from the ISS! The imagery is great; you even get to see the capsule venting hydrogen peroxide as it descends under parachute (at which point the thrusters are no longer useful, so they dump the propellant to make it safer on the ground). This completes the Expedition 50 mission. On board were Sergey Ryzhikov, Andrey Borisenko and Shane Kimbrough. Two crew will launch on the next Soyuz, due to funding constraints at Roscosmos which has forced them to make the difficult decision to reduce their crew size. On a positive note, the commander of Expedition 51, who took command upon this crew’s departure, is Peggy Whitson, and NASA has just decided to extend her mission by three months. She currently holds the female spaceflight endurance record, and by the end of her extended mission, will also capture the American spaceflight endurance record.
Meanwhile, in Florida, crews are preparing the next Cygnus vehicle, named for astronaut John Glenn, to be launched aboard an Atlas V to the ISS. This trip will carry experiments to create new targeted chemo drugs in microgravity for Oncolinx (an experiment which will consume a lot of crew time; it’s stuff that cannot be done anywhere else), a crystal growth experiment that goes beyond the basic science of previous experiments and aims to build new radiation detectors, a mini greenhouse (the most sophisticated sent to space to date) with wheat and Arabidopsis seeds, 34 Cubesats in the pressurized compartment (to be deployed later from Kibo), and 4 Cubesats to be deployed by Cygnus itself after departing the station. Finally, there are two experiments to be carried after Cygnus has completed its primary mission — the third SAFIRE test to better understand fire in microgravity, and three small reentry bodies that will be ejected prior to Cygnus’ reentry, a process which they are expected to survive. They will splash down in the ocean and sink, however, so they aren’t expected to be recovered. Instead, they will be continuously transmitting temperature data via the Iridium constellation, allowing testing of new heat shield materials under real-world circumstances. Note: launch was delayed from March to April 18 due to a launch vehicle technical issue which has been resolved.
And although Falcon 9 has taken a lot of business away from Chinese launch vehicles, they still have a solid lock on their burgeoning government program. A Long March 3B blasted off from Xichang with the Shijan 13 (Chinasat 16) communications satellite on board. This is the highest-bandwidth spacecraft that China has launched, and in addition to acting as a technology demonstrator for several projects (including ion propulsion and laser communications), it will provide high-bandwidth Internet service to airline, ship, and train passengers in and near China.
And lastly, on a bittersweet note, yesterday JPL uploaded the instructions for Cassini’s next Titan flyby. In six days the Cassini spacecraft is moving towards a major milestone — the last flyby of Titan. This flyby will be used as a gravity assist to move the spacecraft from its current ring-grazing phase to the final phase of the mission, called the Grand Finale. It will fly closer to Saturn that anything ever has before, completing several orbits before impacting Saturn in September. But it will return astonishing data that could not be captured any other way, including passes through the tenuous outer atmosphere of Saturn and through the D ring itself.