Russian Space Agency Getting Close to Cause of Re-entry Anomaly and Hard Landing

[/caption]Back in April, the world was captivated by what happened to the crew of Soyuz TMA-11. It was supposed to be a routine trip from the International Space Station to the Kazakhstan landing site, but the crew return capsule endured a ballistic re-entry (i.e. an uncontrolled re-entry occurring steeper than planned) and a hard landing 400 km off-target. Fortunately cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, US astronaut Peggy Whitson and South Korean spaceflight participant Yi So-yeon survived the landing, but endured significant stress (plus Yi So-yeon had to receive medical attention to her back). Several days of media confusion ensued as misinformation was circulated by Russian officials, accusations of incompetence were directed at the crew (by the Russian space agency), and then (my personal favourite) a senior space agency manager put forward his theory on what had gone wrong: Having more women than men on board the spaceship was a bad omen.

So, what really happened above the atmosphere of Russia? It appears Russian engineers are beginning to understand what initiated the ballistic re-entry (without an omen in sight)…

While the rest of the world tried to work out who was to blame for the April 19th hard landing, engineers were busy trying to figure out what actually went wrong with Soyuz TMA-11. For a while now there has been a focus on the explosive bolts that possibly failed to fully separate the service module from the descent module as the craft began to enter the upper atmosphere. A rather heroic spacewalk was even carried out to remove one of the bolts from Soyuz TMA-12 whilst attached to the space station in July 2008. It was placed (carefully) in a blast-proof container and brought back to Earth for analysis.

Russian space officials have said the problem with the explosive bolts (or “pyrobolts”) has been solved and re-entries can go on as normal. However, an instrument will be attached to the outside of the space station, near to where the Soyuz vehicles dock. The installation is scheduled for a December 23rd spacewalk. If the problem has been solved, why investigate the issue further? The reality is that Russian scientists are still trying to understand what causes the Soyuz pyrobolts to misfire; after all, the ballistic re-entry is not exclusive to the April 2008 descent, it also happened in October 2007 during the re-entry of Soyuz TMA-10.

According to Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for the Space Operations Mission Directorate, scientists in the Russian space agency have converged on a common theory, the electromagnetic interference (EMI) hypothesis. EMI is thought to be caused by the flow of space plasma around the hull of the station, causing interference with the pyrobolts in the docked Soyuz vehicles. One effect could be the hardening of the explosives igniter wire, meaning a higher electrical current is needed to trigger the small explosives. Another effect of EMI could cause “the slurry of combustible material around the wire [to] migrate away from the wire, so thereโ€™s a gap between the slurry and the wire,” Gerstenmaier said.

Therefore, the hull-mounted instrument (called a Langmuir probe) will be used to measure the electric potential of the plasma flowing around the station near the Soyuz dock. This will help the scientist on the ground gauge the significance of the two space plasma EMI hypotheses, while they continue to study the pyrobolt brought back from TMA-12. It will be interesting to hear what they find out…

Source: IEEE

12 Replies to “Russian Space Agency Getting Close to Cause of Re-entry Anomaly and Hard Landing”

  1. Well it`s about time they solve the mystery and come up with a solution!Otherwise, the Russians won`t sign up any more rich Dot Com`ers for their Space tourism industry.Maybe NASA can pay for a fix.

  2. Hi Marco,

    I have had this argument over and over, “Keep politics out of space exploration.” This ranged all the way from ESA science to the presidential candidate’s policy on the future of NASA. A few people (and it is a very few, vocal people) are of the opinion that I choose to talk about politics for the sake of it. Alas, it is a necessity.

    For a better understanding of what I mean, have a look at – Should I really stay away from the politics? Don’t you want to know about what drives NASA? NASA isn’t run on fairydust, it is run on US tax dollars; each and every mission needs to be justified. Very quickly you’ll see that every great advance in science has a huge political element.

    As for the hyperbole… well, it depends on your perspective. On writing about the Soyuz hard landing, I was doing a lot of research into who was reporting accurately, and it would seem that a huge number of others were doing the same. Keyword queries for “Soyuz hard landing” spiked on the day of the landing, motivating Fraser and myself to follow the developing story (hence why the articles kept coming for days after), people wanted to know the facts and the Universe Today quickly became the hub for people to get up-to-date news. It was busy! There was a flood of traffic and we reacted. The Soyuz hard landing was my busiest time as a writer, second only to the “Phoenix discovers potential for life on Mars, White House notified” craziness…

    So, why don’t you think people were captivated by the story again?

    We don’t publish these articles lightly, all UT posts are researched thoroughly, not only for science content but also for interest. I’d love to write endlessly about the Sun (as it’s my “thing”) but, generally, there aren’t many people interested in regular updates on a featureless Sun, so I have to diversify as a writer.

    Imagine that, a solar physicist writing about politics…. turns out that it can be done…

    Cheers, Ian ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Ian,

    “Back in April, the world was captivated by what happened to the crew of Soyuz TMA-11.”

    I have to disagree with this sentence. I doubt that the world even took note, much less was captivated. John Glenn’s heat shield problems, Apollo 13, and the Challenger explosion all captivated the world. Not even the Columbia re-entry disaster accomplished that. Try walking out onto the street and ask ten random people about TMA-11. And before anyone wants to snark about dumb Americans, do the same in Australia, South Aftrica, Bangledesh, Bolivia, or Finland. I suspect that your blank stare rate will be in the 90% range.

    You have a great website here that I read daily. Please work on keeping politics and hyperbole out of it. The science and exploration you and your fellow writers post on your site are a welcome respite from daily life and politics. The wonders of the universe and our exploration of it need no ‘poetic enhancement’. Keep up the good work and thank you for this quality website.

  4. “…a senior space agency manager put forward his theory on what had gone wrong: Having more women than men on board the spaceship was a bad omen.” Even if quality, trained, professional engineers and researchers trained in the scientific method come up with the truth, it still won’t change the fact that this agency has people with stupid ideas that thrive on ignorance. What’s next…racial slurs?? To think we might rely on this agency’s vehicles….oh never mind, it’s not even worth the effort to finish that sentence.

  5. Well, certainly the Space World was captivated. Pretty sure the “woman is to blame” story made it to most of the reading world.

    Is it not just a little scary that pyrobolts are accidentally not firing on re-entry, so then perhaps could accidentally fire when docked at the space station?

  6. “EMI is thought to be caused by the flow of space plasma around the hull of the station, causing interference…”

    See – you guys knock the space plasma dude, and now here’s a story that falls right in his bailiwick. Whatever happened to the other guy and the almighty space mirrors? ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. Ian,

    It is easy when one’s circle talks about a story to think that ‘everyone’ is. The fact is that other than those of us, like you, who have an interest in space related stories, very few people even heard about TMA-11. That is hardly worldwide captivation. Ask random people where they were when Challenger blew up, and they will be able to tell you. Ask them about TMA-11, and count the blank stares.

    As for the research behind your stories, I do not doubt that you do a thorough job. That is one of the things I like about your site, the quality of the reporting. I found the story about TMA-11 to be very interesting and your write up was well done. I only question that first sentence. I hope I don’t sound like a nitpicker, because people who write in and point out some minor error, which you correct quickly, are annoying.

    As for politics, sure discussions about the NASA budget or ESA policy or Parlimentary debate about India’s space program, for example, are all great topics. UT is a great escape from all the rest. It is the non-space related politics that has creeped in on ocassion. It is just disappointing to see here. No one, and I assure you no one, understands the importance of politics and world affair more than I . Many may share my appreciation, but that stuff is air and water to me of neccessity. That makes your great site all the more important to me personally. For a few minutes a day, it is just about stars and planets and such.

    As for NASA’s budget, there is no fairy dust to be had. Pity. Two thousand years from now, people will not remember who won the elction of 2008 in the USA, or Joe the Plumber (who got a back handed mention on UT). They will remember Apollo 11.

    Ian, you have a fantastic site here, an escape of sorts. I am not complaining. Hyperbole hurts the teller, not the listener. I don’t want to see people to begin to abandon your site. No, one line in one story won’t do it, but rivers start with trickles.

    Keep up the good work. See you every day on the Web. If you make it to the East Coast, I can arrange for cold beers to be present.

  8. Can someone explain how misfiring attachment bolts can change the descent trajectory? I still don’t understand what actually happened.

  9. I predict that the new research will show another mystery related to the induction of electromagnetic energy by the plasma as it passes the instruments placed to record it.

    As for why the misfire causes the problem. Please think. You have an object in free fall. anything that imparts even a tiny rotational movement will have an effect. The capsule is not standing on any surface, it is as though it were hovering above the surface, so any tiny input of energy will displace its movement. A single bolt, not firing exactly in sequence will no doubt cause the capsule to rotate. Perhaps not by much, but surely enough to cause the entire entry profile to change.

    A little like the same effect when you put your hand out of the car window as you travel along. On the road, the car continues as before, but if you are in an aircraft, the hand will cause the aircraft to change direction. Like adding a new rudder. That is what is causing the underlying problem with re-entry.

  10. If my math is right they would only have to be about 0.023 degrees off course in order to miss the landing zone by that much. With the distances traveled only a few thousandths of a degree can make a huge difference in where you end up.

  11. The mis-firing bolts do not just induce a fractional spin, the lander does not detach from the discarded part of the vehicle!

    We do not appreciate the emotional stress these astronauts are subjected to, like being in a submarine at war, not knowing if you will blow up at any second or free-fall spinning wildly to earth, especially in programs that don’t really have the resources to support them safely.


    I appreciate that this is NOT a scientist-only site, but is open to the general public, and offers a real and perhaps needed interface between the two. This seems to be the goal of the hosts, and subscribers should approach it with that in mind. If this causes too many professional tensions, then perhaps there should be stricter control or criteria over the comments.

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