Last Thursday, the Soyuz rocket experienced a very rare abort when one of two umbilicals failed to separate at the appropriate time. This cost the perfect geometry required to attempt a new two-orbit direct ascent approach, so they reset for Saturday, with the plan of reverting to the traditional two-day chase. Today’s launch was carried out flawlessly, and Progress MS-07 is on its way to the ISS.
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.
Soyuz MS-06 launched today! And actually, by the time I’m writing this, they’re at the ISS, docked and preparing to board. Here’s the spectacular nighttime launch from Baikonur Cosmodrome:
On board are Alexander Misurkin, Mark Vande Hei, Joe Acaba. They are expected to stay in space until late February.
With the return of Soyuz MS-04, Peggy Whitson has established a new record — at 665 days, the most cumulative spaceflight hours for any woman on Earth, and also for any American. Globally, she stands at #8 for cumulative spaceflight time. She is also the only woman to have commanded the ISS twice, and also holds the female record for number of EVAs (ten, with a cumulative time of 60 hours, 21 minutes — there are only two men ahead of her in the overall records, Anatoly Solovyev and Michael Lopez-Alegria, with the caveat that record-holder Solovyev’s 16 EVAs does include two internal spacewalks aboard Mir).
Whitson returned in good health, as did her two crewmates, Soyuz commander Fyodor Yurchikhin and flight engineer Jack Fischer. There’s gorgeous video of the final descent:
The latest crew has arrived at the ISS! The international crew (Russian, American, and Italian) launched from Baikonur into a rapid ascent profile that allowed them to dock just a few orbits later.
Yesterday’s Progress launch went smoothly, but unfortunately the recovery of the spent boosters did not. Russian rockets have always launched over land (the sole exception being the Soyuz rockets launched from Kourou in French Guiana, in partnership with Arianespace), and this means they drop their lower stages onto land. This has caused problems before, from property damage to at least one recorded incident of a cow being killed by falling debris, but for the most part, the spent stages are manna from heaven to the scrap dealers, as they contain valuable materials like titanium. Before the scavengers are allowed to access the stages, a team hired by Roscosmos goes in and removes any salvageable electronics and other components, and it was one of those teams that suffered a tragic loss.
The stage one drop site this week has been suffering unusually dry conditions (even for this semi-arid part of the world). This is where the distinctive conical strap-on boosters impact, and it is always cleared of personnel before the flight. But on this occasion, one of the boosters, still hot so soon after burnout, started a grass fire. The fire ultimately burned 15 km of grassland before being extinguished, but two contractors with NPO Mashinostroenia were driving along the road, heading to the scene to help fight the fire, when a sudden gust of wind blew fire right across their truck. One man was killed; the other was airlifted to a hospital with burns over 45% of his body.
It’s a sobering reminder that even when everything with the vehicle appears to go exactly right, spaceflight remains a dangerous endeavor.
The Progress MS-06 spacecraft has been placed into orbit by a Soyuz 2 1-A rocket out of Baikonur Cosmodrome. It carries 2450 kg of cargo, including 705 kg of propellant, 50 kg of air, and 420 kg of water. (The ISS has a water reclamation system, but it is not able to provide 100% of the crews’ needs as yet.) Among that cargo is a set of four nanosatellites which will be hand-launched by cosmonaust during a spacewalk. Progress MS-06 will dock with the Zvezda module’s aft compartment, allowing it to transfer propellants into Zvezda’s tanks.
Progress MS-06 was originally slated to dock with Pirs, which it would then carry with it for disposal at the end of its mission, freeing a docking port for the Multipurpose Logistics Module “Nauka”, which has faced numerous delays going back years. Unfortunately, Nauka encountered more delays and is no longer scheduled to launch before 2018. Therefore, Pirs will remain at the ISS when Progress MS-06 departs. Pirs does double duty as both a docking compartment and an airlock for EVAs mounted from the Russian segment; Nauka is equipped with an airlock as well. Even if there is no Russian airlock, there is of course the Quest airlock on the US segment, but it is generally preferred to use the closest airlock to a given worksite.