It’s been a while since I’ve posted; work’s been crazy busy! So I’ll quick catch you up with some of what’s gone up and down since I last posted:
On September 17, the latest Dragon capsule (CRS-12) returned from the ISS with a two tons of research material and hardware on board, including a population of laboratory mice sent into space to study effect on eyesight and movement.
On September 21, a Soyuz rocket from Plesetsk Cosmodrome placed the latest element of the GLONASS M navigation constellation into orbit.
On September 23, an Atlas V out of Vandenburg Air Force Base carried the classified NROL-42 into orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office.
Obviously, they won’t tell us much about the payload, but the mission patch and the launch site both suggest a polar orbiting spacecraft. The size of the fairing and quantity of boosters both suggest a very big spacecraft, which is fairly typical for spy satellites. It is believed to be a signals intelligence spacecraft, which means its job will likely be to intercept communications. Maybe. 😉
Lastly, the Tianzhou 1 spacecraft returned to Earth in pieces last Friday. It was supposed to; it was an experimental robotic resupply and refueling spacecraft similar in function to Progress, which also undergoes a destructive reentry at the end of its mission. Tianzhou 1 completed a successful mission docking with the uninhabited Tiangong 2 space station, transferring propellant, and then later undocking and safely disposing of itself. Tiangong 2 is not expected to host any more human occupants, but remains in orbit as a procedures testbed for ground controllers. It is not clear when the next space station will fly; China intends to greatly increase the size and functionality of their stations, but they have had a major setback with the failure of the last Long March 5 rocket. This is the heaviest rocket they’ve built to date, and is intended to place the major elements of their new modular space station in orbit, but with a 50/50 operational record after two flights, some more work is needed before it can carry such valuable cargo.
Cassini took its last pictures, including a stirring set of images showing Enceladus off the limb of Saturn, and has been downlinking them to Earth. JPL is putting them up as quickly as possible. The main communications currently are still through the big Mars antenna at Goldstone, but the big dish at Canberra has started to pick up the carrier signal and will soon take over the task of talking to Cassini; that dish will be dedicated to Cassini for the remainder of the mission. Around midnight here in Central Daylight Time, Cassini will pass the orbit of Enceladus and begin moving once more into the domain of the ring system. Finally, at 5:32 CDT, Cassini is expected to lose its lock on Earth due to excessive aerodynamic forces, and at 6:55 CDT, the signal received on Earth will cut off. It will be over.
But it will not be soon forgotten.
First off, India’s PSLV made another successful flight, racking up its quota of successful low-cost launches to Earth orbit! In fact, it set a domestic record, carrying 20 satellites to orbit on this mission, easily a record for India, for customers in Indonesia, Canada, Germany, and the United States, including a Google payload.
Secondly, the Cygnus spacecraft from Orbital Sciences has completed its mission at the ISS and its post-ISS mission to conduct a fire experiment called SAFIRE. There will be more SAFIRE tests on future Cygnus flights, to better understand how fire propagates (or doesn’t) in weightlessness at scales not possible inside of crewed spacecraft for safety reasons.
Here’s raw video of the actual flames observed inside of Cygnus’ SAFIRE experiment module:
Then, yesterday, Cygnus fired its engines one last time to auger itself in over the South Pacific, carrying one last experiment: REBR, a Re-Entry Breakup Recorder, a device that has been flown on a few other returning disposable spacecraft such as ATV and HTV, to better understand how the breakup happens during reentry, with an eye to improving safety for the vehicles we want to actually survive the process. Waste not, want not. 😉
This particular Cygnus was named the SS Rick Husband, in honor of the late commander of STS-107, the final flight of Columbia.
The CRS-8 Dragon capsule that launched from Florida a month ago (setting into motion the historic first controlled sea landing of a rocket) has now returned to Earth. I haven’t found any video of the splashdown, but here’s its departure from Station:
It carried a lot of critical experiments up, and on the way down it’s carrying things like biological specimens, but the big deal for this flight was the BEAM it carried in its (now-discarded) unpressurized trunk compartment. The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module is currently mated to the aft port of the Tranquility node, but is not scheduled to be inflated until later this month. It isn’t really meant as a fully operational module, and for the start at least, crews are only planning to make brief excursions into the module, sealing it up when not in use. But if all goes well, Bigelow Aerospace plans for it to become the first of a whole family of orbiting space habitats.
The next Dragon capsule is scheduled to fly in late June. Its primary payload will replace what was lost on the CRS-7 launch failure: a docking adapter stored in the trunk section. Boeing is contracted to deliver two of those, and NASA is exercising an option to have them build a third out of flight spares to replace the one that was lost. NASA needs two docking adapters at Station so as to be able to host two commercial crew vehicles simultaneously, so the upcoming flight will be absolutely critical to the return of human spaceflight from US soil.
It was just too windy at Cape Canaveral. SpaceX fueled anyway, just in case, but the winds never settled down and they are now draining the tanks. Tomorrow the forecast is better for their second attempt to land the first stage.
But SpaceX will still be landing something today: the CRS-5 Dragon separated from the ISS this morning, and will splash down west of California this afternoon (Pacific time). Here’s the unberthing video:
Cygnus has returned to Earth . . . technically. Yesterday, the spacecraft made a firey reentry, burning up in the atmosphere over the south Pacific. The ISS crew had a lovely view of the destructive reentry, as it was night over that part of the Earth as they went overhead. SpaceflightNow has a lovely image gallery. 😉
Today, the Russians conducted a spacewalk outside the ISS, installing a European experiment package, performing maintenance activities on the Russian segment, collecting samples off of Zvezda’s exterior to evaluate deposition of combustion products from its propulsion system over the past fourteen years in orbit, and also hand-launching a tiny nanosatellite for Peru. Here, cosmonaut Oleg Artemyev has just released the Chasqui 1 imaging nanosatellite, which is floating away at top right.
It’s a rather complicated process, since Soyuz is the only expendable spacecraft with three sections. And it’s amazingly rugged, able to make the return with its crew alive even with quite a lot of things wrong. So how does a Soyuz return happen? ESA explains in this excellent video.