Path clear for STS 130 to attach Tranquility module

This NASA artists concept shows ISS configuration after shuttle Endeavour has delivered and attached Tranquility and Cupola on STS 130 flight. Credit: NASA


Teams up in space and on the ground completed crucial tasks over the weekend to clear the path for attachment of the new Tranquility module to the International Space Station (ISS). Astronauts aboard the ISS removed the last obstacle blocking the path to dock Tranquility to the orbiting outpost. Meanwhile, technicians at Pad 39 A loaded Tranquility and the Cupola workstation into shuttle Endeavour’s cargo bay in preparation for the planned Feb 7 blast off of the STS 130 mission at 4:39 AM.

In a complex robotic operation, Astronauts Jeff Williams and TJ Creamer with help from Soichi Noguchi worked to expose the docking port on Node 1, also known as Unity, where Tranquility will be joined to the station. This side facing port was occupied by another component known as Pressurized Mating Adapter 3, or PMA 3, which had to be removed in order to make way for connecting Tranquility.

During a several hour long operation, the astronauts deftly snatched the PMA-3 with the stations Canadian- built robotic arm, unlatched the hooks and then relocated PMA-3 to the zenith berthing port of the Harmony module, also known as Node 2, and locked it back into place. Leak checks confirmed a successful outcome. Node 2 is where space shuttle Endeavour will dock at the station at another docking port dubbed PMA-2.

NASA Artist's concept shows PMA 3 after relocation from Node 1 to Node 2 zenith (space facing) port. Endeavour will dock at Node 2 at blue colored docking port dubbed PMA 2. European Columbus module docked at left; Japanese Kibo module docked at right side of Node 2. Credit: NASA

The PMA’s are basically tunnels though which astronauts move to get about from the shuttle to the station or between adjacent modules on the station. After Endeavour departs, the ISS crew will again relocate PMA-2, this time from Harmony on to the far end port of Tranquility. The station is outfitted with three PMA’s altogether.

The teams at pad 39 A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) sealed the two payload bay doors for flight after installing and securing the Tranquility and Cupola modules, which are the primary payloads for the STS 130. Tranquility will house many of the ISS life support systems.

Endeavour's payload bay doors have been closed for launch after secured Tranquility node and 7 windowed Cupola work station. Cupola will provide a spectacular view of Earth and other celestial objects. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett
Today (Jan 26), KSC technicians also began final ordnance connections at the pad and carefully checked out the astronaut’s spacesuits before packing them into special containers to be loaded onto the shuttle.

Meanwhile work continues at NASA’s Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Ala to assemble the four new ammonia coolant hoses essential for mission success. New hoses had to be constructed after two of the original 14 ft long hoses failed during pressure testing. The new lines were built by joining together shorter spare hoses already approved for flight and use aboard the ISS. A NASA spokesperson told me that “The original hoses were redesigned after the test failure and are on schedule for availability as a backup”.

The NASA press spokesman told me that the original subcontractor for the hoses has left the spaceflight business and therefore had to be replaced by a new subcontractor who is relatively new to the space business. The new hoses are due to arrive at the Kennedy Space Center in the next few days for installation aboard Endeavour.

The senior NASA shuttle management team meets on Wednesday (Jan. 27) at KSC for the official Flight Readiness Review (FRR) to assess in depth all aspects of the mission including launch, spacecraft and cargo and will then announce the official launch date. Flow processing is proceeding well at this time and no major issues are being worked.

I will be reporting on site from the Kennedy Space Center in February and directly from the launch pads for both STS 130 and SDO. Earlier STS 130 article by Ken Kremer

Endeavour aiming for on time launch with coolant hose fix ahead of schedule

STS 130 flight pressing forward to launch as NASA resolves coolant hose leak

STS-130 Shuttle flight facing delay due to Payload technical glitch

Shuttle Endeavour Rolled to Pad; Countdown to the Final Five Begins

Tranquility Module Formally Handed over to NASA from ESA

NASA advanced Solar Observatory nearing February launch; will send IMAX like movies daily

SDO and two piece payload fairing inside “clean room” at Astrotech Spaceflight facility near KSC on Jan 21. Fairing protects spacecraft during ascent through earths atmosphere. Credit: Ben Cooper/Spaceflight Now


NASA’s new solar science satellite, dubbed the Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO, moved an important step closer to launch when it was encapsulated inside its two piece payload fairing on Thursday (Jan 21) at the Astrotech Space Operations Facility nearby to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC). SDO is the most sophisticated spacecraft ever designed and constructed to study the sun and its dynamic behavior.

Liftoff of SDO aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station is targeted for Feb 9, just 2 days after the shuttle Endeavour blasts off with the Tranquility module and heads for the ISS.

“SDO will revolutionize our view of the sun. It will reveal how solar activity affects our planet and help us anticipate what lies ahead”, said Madhulika Guhathakurta at a Jan 21 press briefing. She is the SDO program scientist at NASA Headquarters.

The enclosed observatory will be transported on a specially designed trailer to Launch Complex 41 on Tuesday (Jan. 26) and then be hoisted up and bolted atop the two stage booster rocket. The 19 story tall Atlas V will propel the 8,800 pound spacecraft into an inclined geosynchronous orbit where it will study the sun in multiple wavelengths during its 5 year primary mission. It carries sufficient fuel to operate for another 5 years.

An Atlas rocket similar to this vehicle I observed at Cape Canaveral Pad 41 will launch SDO. Credit: Ken Kremer
SDO arrived at KSC on July 9 for final processing, testing and fueling operations. It was shipped from NASA’s Goddard Space flight Center where it was built by teams of technicians, engineers and scientists at a cost of $848 million.

SDO is the first spacecraft to be launched as part of NASA’s Living with a Star (LWS) science program initiative. The goal is to better understand the causes of solar variability and to create better forecasts for predicting “space weather” which directly affects the Earth and all life inhabiting it. Furthermore, this information will be used to help protect and provide early warning to valuable satellites operating in space as well as astronaut crews working aboard the International Space Station.

When active regions on the sun erupt suddenly and violently in the form of a solar flare or coronal mass ejection (CME), they hurl millions of tons of solar material and charged particles toward Earth which can damage orbiting satellites, disrupt navigation systems and cause failures in the power grid.

SDO is equipped with 3 science instruments which will measure and characterize in-depth the Suns interior and atmosphere, magnetic field, hot plasma of the solar corona and the density of the radiation that creates the ionosphere of the planets.

SDO will collect huge volumes of data which amount to a staggering 1.5 terabytes per day. This is the equivalent of downloading a half million songs each day or filling a CD every 36 seconds. “That’s almost 50 times more science data than any other mission in NASA history”, says Dean Pesnell, the SDO project scientist at NASA Goddard.

SDO is enclosed in its payload fairing and ready for transport on Jan 26 to Atlas V launch pad. Credit: NASA/Jim Grossman
“SDO is going to send us images ten times better than high definition television” according to Pesnell. “The pixel count is comparable to an IMAX movie — an IMAX filled with the raging sun, 24 hours a day.”

“We’ll be getting IMAX-quality images every 10 seconds,” says Pesnell. “We’ll see every nuance of solar activity.” Because no orbiting spacecraft has ever come even close to this incredible speed, there is a vast potential for ground breaking science discoveries. Scientists hope to learn how storms are generated inside the sun and how they then evolve and propagate outwards through the suns atmosphere and towards earth and the rest of the solar system.

Since SDO has no on-board recording system, the data will be transmitted continuously on a 24/7 basis to dedicated receiving stations on the ground in New Mexico as it maintains position over 22,000 miles high above earths equator.

I will be reporting on site from the Kennedy Space Center in February and directly from the launch pads for both SDO and STS 130. See my earlier STS 130 reports here.

NASA SDO Website

Endeavour aiming for on time launch with coolant hose fix ahead of schedule

STS 130 Crew of Endeavour at Pad 39 A press briefing. Credit: NASA


The crew of Endeavour said on Wednesday (Jan 20) that construction of new coolant hoses required to connect the new Tranquility module, or Node 3, to the space station is running ahead of schedule and they are optimistic for an on time launch of the STS 130 mission currently set for Feb 7.

Shortly after I attended the rollout to pad 39 A, the launch was thrown into doubt when a set of the 14 ft long external ammonia jumper hoses, which convey coolent critical for temperature control, ruptured during high pressure testing in early January. Tranquility cannot be fully activated until the ammonia lines are installed and functioning properly. Since then, tiger teams of engineers and technicians working at the hose subcontractor and at NASA’s Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Ala have worked vigorously to qualify four new replacement hoses. They are also working to modify the original ammonia hoses which will be brought along as a back-up “Plan B” in case problems develop with the new replacement hoses.

Endeavour was rolled out to Pad 39 A during a frigid morning on Jan 6, 2010. Credit: Ken Kremer

During a launch pad press conference with reporters, lead Endeavour spacewalker Robert Behnken said, “We’ve been following these ammonia lines and the story associated with them for 13 months. I think folks paying close attention right now haven’t really heard the entire story. So we’ve been watching them closely for a long time now.”

“Last weekend our crew was at Marshall to see the first line as it was coming together and actually put it on a test rig to make sure it was going to do the job that it was intended. We’re expecting this Saturday to fly up and see all four lines in a pretty good configuration, pretty flight representative. Those lines, after that, will come down here to KSC for processing and installation into the orbiter.”

“Right now, the schedule appears for that set of lines to be a couple of days ahead,” Behnken added. “Our original plan was to do our fit check and our opportunity with them next weekend. But they’re ahead now and we’ll be able to do that this Saturday, which is great news.”

“The program is also pursuing a second set of lines that would allow us to launch at a slightly delayed launch date and still maintain a full capability for Node 3 [Tranquility]. So the program is pursuing two courses. Plan 1 is actually ahead of schedule which allows us to do a fit check a week early. That’s really good news as we move forward to flight”, he concluded.

Tranquility is the primary cargo being lofted in the payload bay of shuttle Endeavour and will be delivered to the International Space Station by the six person crew. During three spacewalks, astronaut teams will attach and activate Tranquility and the Cupola observation module which is joined to Tranquility at one end. The modules were loaded into Endeavour’s payload bay on Wednesday (Jan. 20). See my recent photos of Tranquility and Cupola from inside the Space Station Processing Facility at KSC in earlier reports here and here.

Today (Jan 21), the STS 130 astronauts took part in a mock countdown known as the TCDT, or Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test. While dressed in their orange spacesuits they climbed inside Endeavour at pad 39 A to rehearse all the actual launch procedures right up to the T minus 4 minute point , but not including the point of liftoff. They also practiced emergency evacuation safety procedures in case of a launch pad abort requiring them to rapidly depart the orbiter in a life or death situation and enter the slidewire escape baskets. The crew flies back to Houston on Friday for final pre flight training exercises.

The six person crew comprises of commander George “Zambo” Zamka, pilot Terry Virts, and mission specialists Kathryn Hire, Stephen Robinson, Nicholas Patrick and Robert Behnken.

Senior shuttle managers will meet at KSC on Jan. 27 for an executive-level Flight Readiness Review. They will conduct an in-depth assessment to determine whether the shuttle, crew, payloads and the problematical ammonia lines are fit for launch. Thereafter the team will set an official launch date, which for now is still targeted for Feb 7.

Meanwhile it’s likewise been a busy time up in space for the 5 man crew of Expedition 22 currently in residence aboard the ISS as they conduct essential preparatory work over the next few days which must be completed before Endeavour launches and also to free up the docking port for Tranquility.

Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov conducts an EVA on Jan 14 to prepare the Poisk module for future dockings at the ISS. Credit: NASA

Soyuz TMA-16 spacecraft moves from the aft port of the International Space Station's Zvezda service module to the Poisk module. Credit: NASA TV
ISS commander Jeffrey Williams and cosmonaut Max Suraev boarded their Soyuz TMA-16 spacecraft today in order to relocate it to a different docking port. First they undocked from the aft port of the Russian built Zvezda service command module and then maneuvered the capsule over to redock at the Poisk module, which is russia’s newest pressurized module and which is connected to Zvezdas zenith, space facing port. This marked the first spacecraft docking at Poisk.

Earlier STS 130 article by Ken Kremer from KSC

STS 130 flight pressing forward to launch as NASA resolves coolant hose leak

STS-130 Shuttle flight facing delay due to Payload technical glitch

Shuttle Endeavour Rolled to Pad; Countdown to the Final Five Begins

Tranquility Module Formally Handed over to NASA from ESA

If Phoenix Arises, Science could flow quickly

Caption: This mosaic assembled from Phoenix images shows the spacecraft’s three landing legs and patches of water ice exposed by the landing thrusters. Splotches of Martian material on the landing leg strut at left could be liquid saline-water. Larger version on .Credit: Kenneth Kremer, Marco Di Lorenzo, NASA/JPL/UA/Max Planck Institute and

If the miraculous happens and contact is unexpectedly re-established with NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander, science could flow almost instantly if the ships vital operating systems are healthy. Indeed a science plan could be swiftly put in place after determining the condition of the lander, says Doug McCuiston, director of Mars Exploration at NASA Headquarters. McCuiston explained to me in an interview that the initial science would be “a surface change and atmospheric imaging campaign that could begin nearly immediately. In that instance, if the cameras are operable it is easy to begin an imaging campaign with real-time planning”.

A robust and wide ranging science agenda far beyond pictures could theoretically be implemented if Phoenix does amazingly survive and the pre-programmed Lazarus mode kicks in and she re-awakens with a functional arm. The goal would be to restart the assessment of habitability in the martian arctic where humanity in the form of a robotic surrogate first touched water beyond earth.

The two principal science instruments, TEGA and MECA, each have unexploited analysis cells which could potentially be loaded with fresh martian soil samples and checked for signatures of water, organics and nutrients. Peter Smith, Phoenix Principal Investigator from the University of Arizona, confirmed to me that the single unopened TEGA oven could be used, if still intact. The one remaining MECA wet chemistry cell could also potentially be utilized. Michael Hecht, lead scientist for MECA at JPL, told me that “in theory” fresh soil samples could be dropped as well onto the two microscope slides that were initially used for atmospheric air-fall samples rather than dirt droppings. High powered examinations with both the optical and atomic force microscopes might also resume. High resolution panoramic pictures would be taken by the stereo imaging system. Close up shots could be snapped by the robotic arm camera. See my Phoenix mosaics here in prepared in collaboration with Marco Di Lorenzo.

Caption: Farewell view of TEGA science instrument to Sol 142. Scoop delivers Martian dirt for compositional analysis. Two MECA cells at top left. TECP probe at top right. Mosaic of images in false color stitched from robotic arm camera images. Credit: Marco Di Lorenzo, Ken Kremer, NASA/JPL/UA/Max Planck Institute and Spaceflight magazine.

In fact, no one on the team really expects Phoenix to revive following the exceedingly harsh winter weather she has had to endure since falling silent more than one year ago on November 2, 2008. “Keep in mind, we think the chances are very low that it survived [martian] winter,” McCuiston emphasized to me. “NASA hardware has never been exposed to this type of environment on Mars”.

Phoenix landed on the northern plains of the martian artic on May 25, 2008 in a polar permafrost region that proved to be within arms reach of a vast, rock hard layer of frozen water ice. She completed 5 months of intense science, accomplishing break though discoveries at a high northern latitude. She then perished exactly as foreseen when the power output from the solar arrays plunged due to the onset of harsh seasonal weather causing dimming sunlight and bitterly frigid temperatures. At that point there were 17 hours of sunlight per sol (martian day) which are 24.7 hours in duration. Phoenix exceeded her targeted lifetime by over 2 months.

Caption: Mosaic of Phoenix lander footpad and blocks of water ice dubbed “Snow Queen” cleared of topsoil by descent rockets as spacecraft touched down near the frigid Martian North Pole on May 25, 2008. False-color mosaic also shows a spring to right of footpad, harmlessly lost during landing. Selected for the cover of 9 June 2008 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine. See also APOD 12 June 2008. Credit: Kenneth Kremer, Marco Di Lorenzo, NASA/JPL/UA/Max Planck Institute/Aviation Week & Space Technology

And then the environmental situation turned even more dire. Temperatures plunged steeply to below minus 180 C, there was no sunlight at all for 3 months starting in April 2009 and sheets of carbon dioxide ice built up to perhaps a foot in depth and may have encased the lander at least partially. As a result the electronic wiring likely passed through a “glass transition state” and became brittle and the twin solar arrays might have snapped off.

Caption: Holy Cow water ice layer blasted free by Phoenix descent engines visible at top. Mosaic of images in false color stitched from robotic arm camera images. Credit: Marco Di Lorenzo, Kenneth Kremer, NASA/JPL/UA/Max Planck Institute and Spaceflight magazine. See also APOD 12 Nov 2008.

I asked Doug about NASA’s go forward plan in the unlikely event that Phoenix arises, “It would probably take a few days at minimum to determine what Phoenix status was, and what may or may not be done with it. Viable plans cannot be generated until the condition of the lander is known, if we hear from it. So producing a plan [prior to contact] would be guesswork at best”. As for how quickly any positive announcement would be made ? McCuiston told me that, “We will go through our regular public affairs process when the project tells us contact was made—that would be very quick, probably the same day”.

Of course to accomplish anything meaningful requires money and people. So we next discussed the status of funding available from NASA and staffing from scientists. “The Mars Program held a small amount of contingency start-up funding. Additional funding would be determined based on the condition of the instruments, and the extent and value of the science that could be done”, McCuiston explained. “The science team can be rallied quickly by the PI (Principal Investigator) since all are watching progress”, he added.

Peter Smith of the University of Arizona is the scientific Principal Investigator for the Phoenix mission and the same teams spread across many institutions in the US, Canada and several countries in Europe would still be involved.

How many scientists can be supported and for how long? “That all depends on the condition of the lander and the instruments”, McCuiston said. Phoenix was an international space exploration mission led by the US and the University of Arizona with project management at JPL and in collaboration with partners from Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, Finland and Great Britain.

NASA has two spacecraft currently circling Mars in near polar orbit which will be actively searching for Phoenix, named Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). “We actually listen for it, not try to contact it because of the operational mode it will come up in (if it does at all)”, explained McCuiston. “Odyssey is slated to be the prime communications spacecraft”. The listening campaign with Odyssey begins on January 18 with 10+ overflights per day for three consecutive days, each of which has about a 10 minute window of opportunity, and will continue into February and March. “MRO will search on an as-available basis, depending on what else it’s doing, since its primary role is MSL landing site work. Mars Express [from ESA] is not involved”.

MRO does play another very important informational role. “They will try to image Phoenix about every 2 weeks”, McCuiston said. No one I contacted was willing to hazard a guess yet as to whether the two power producing solar arrays are still intact. “So far the MRO images have been very poor due to fog and ice. It probably won’t be very clear until February or later”.

So the odds against contact are absolutely daunting. Still we can hope and dream that Phoenix may rise one last time from the ashes and phone home to resume her glorious achievements. If Phoenix is intact, she could potentially remain active as a research outpost for a much longer time period than the first round of 5 months since she is now at an earlier point in the martian year with sunlight increasing each sol. Phoenix final move was to poke the pitch fork like TECP probe into the martian dirt before shutting down.

Many Mars scientists believe that the arctic region may be the best place to look for evidence of current life on Mars. Indeed many Phoenix scientists have concluded that the Phoenix landing site is the “most habitable” of any thus far visited by human robotic explorers.

Stay tuned and listen for Phoenix

Earlier Mars article by Ken Kremer:

Mars 2016 Methane Orbiter: Searching for Signs of Life

Phoenix mosaics by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo at Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD)

Phoenix and the Holy Cow APOD 12 Nov 2008

Phoenix and the Snow Queen APOD 12 Jun 2008

Phoenix mosaics by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo at

STS 130 flight pressing forward to launch as NASA resolves coolant hose leak

Caption: Tranquility and Cupola lowered into canister for transport to Launch Pad 39 A. Credit: NASA

NASA managers decided on Tuesday (Jan. 12) to press forward towards an on time liftoff target date of Feb 7 for Space Shuttle Endeavour as engineers developed a workaround solution to the ammonia coolant hose leak issue which has threatened to delay the launch or seriously alter the mission goals (read my earlier post). The ammonia jumper hoses are critical to the success of the STS 130 mission because they will supply cooling capacity to the new Tranquility module by circulating ammonia and transport the heat generated by the on board systems. Space walking astronauts must connect the hoses from Tranquility to the space station’s cooling system during the STS 130 flight in order to fully activate Tranquility for use by the orbiting outposts crew.

The primary goal of STS 130 is to deliver, attach and activate the Italian built Tranquility pressurized module with will provide significant additional living and work space for the resident ISS crews. Joined to one end of Tranquility is the Cupola observation module. Three EVA’s are planned to accomplish all the essential work to wholly attach and activate Tranquility and also relocate Cupola to an earth facing port on Tranquility.

Mike Suffredini, NASA’s space station manager, decided to proceed toward a Feb 7 launch and that the mission will retain full mission content. Thus there will be no reduction in tasks and NASA is no longer pursuing a “partial” activation of Tranquility. The crew is therefore expected to accomplish 100% of their goals in activating Tranquility and Cupola.

One of the four 14 ft long flight hoses due to be installed by the astronauts failed during the final pre-flight testing on Jan 7 at a subcontractors facility in California. The high pressure hose ruptured during pressure testing at just about half the specified design pressure, at around 1500 psi vs. the specification of approximately 3000 psi.

After a thorough analysis and evaluation, NASA engineering teams decided to select an alternative hose design which involves welding together shorter 7 ft hoses that are already certified and tested for use aboard the station as the primary jumper, according to Pete Hasbrook, NASA’s Expedition 22 lead increment manager. “They have been working on a beefed up version of the hoses, adding a second braid around the hoses, beefing up the weld and the connector that the metal braid is connected to,” Hasbrook explained at a media briefing on Monday (Jan 11). “The new hoses have now been successfully tested to over 3000 psi”.

The new hoses are now under construction and are set to be delivered to the Kennedy Space Center just about one week before the Feb. 7 target launch date. Any further problems could delay the mission as the number of contingency days available for flow processing is declining. There is no longer any consideration of switching this flight with the next mission, STS 131, planned to blast off on March 18.

Tranquility and Cupola were lifted by crane from their workstand (see photos) inside the Space Station Processing facility (SSPF) today (Jan 12) and gently packed inside the nearby payload transportation canister. The current plan is to move them to the pad this Saturday, according to NASA spokesman Allard Beutel. Continuing cold weather at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida has caused a slight delay in pre-launch activities by technicians working to load propellants aboard Endeavour at Launch Pad 39 A. Read my earlier report on rollout of Endeavour to Pad 39 A here.

Caption: Endeavour was rolled out to Pad 39 A on Jan 6, 2010. Credit: Ken Kremer

This entire hose problem stems from NASA’s decision to change the attach location of Tranquility to the port side (left) of the Unity node, designated as Node 1 and located at the center of the station. To accommodate this change in location custom built hoses were required. “The hoses needed to be longer than originally designed”, Beutel explained to me. “Hoses from the group that were set to fly on STS-130 failed so that’s why we’re looking at all the hoses and making modifications to our plans”.

NASA has also decided on a back up “Plan B”, which is to accelerate development of a redesigned set of “functionally equivalent hoses”, at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, based on the design that failed and bring them up along to orbit for use in the event a problem arises with the new primary design.
Meanwhile, the six person crew of Endeavour continues to train at the Johnson Space Center. They still plan to fly to the Cape for several days of countdown dress rehearsal and safety training on Jan 19.

Earlier STS 130 article by Ken Kremer

STS-130 Shuttle flight facing delay due to Payload technical glitch

Shuttle Endeavour Rolled to Pad; Countdown to the Final Five Begins

STS-130 Shuttle flight facing delay due to Payload technical glitch

Caption: Overhead view of Tranquility & Cupola modules inside the Space Station Processing Facility at Kennedy Space Center on Jan 8, 2010. Tranquility will be attached to ISS by STS 130 astronaut crew. Credit: Ken Kremer

(Editor’s Note: Ken Kremer is in Florida for Universe Today covering the pre-launch activities of Endeavour.)

The launch of Shuttle Endeavour on the STS 130 flight now faces a potential delay due to technical problems with the external ammonia connecting lines which are designed to provide critical cooling capability to the new Tranquility module. Tranquility is a pressurized module being brought aloft as payload in the cargo bay of Endeavour on the STS 130 mission. Launch of Endeavour is currently set for 4:39 AM on Feb. 7.

NASA spokesman Allard Beutel told me Friday afternoon Jan 8 that, “As space station and space shuttle teams prepared for February’s launch of Endeavour, a high-pressure ammonia jumper hose assembly failed during a prelaunch test Thursday. Four such hoses, which will be used to connect the new Tranquility module to the station’s cooling system, are to be installed and activated by spacewalkers during the STS-130 mission.”

Delivery and attachment of Tranquility to the International Space Station (ISS) is the primary goal of STS 130. Its like adding a new room to your house. Tranquility will provide extra living and work space for the astronaut residents aboard the ISS.

NASA engineering teams are now working diligently to try and rectify the hose problems through additional testing, developing alternative work arounds and data evaluation. As they continue searching for solutions throughout the weekend and beyond, its not clear at this point if they can maintain the targeted Feb 7 launch date or if the technical glitch will force a delay.

NASA is considering many options on how to proceed and an on time lift off is still a possibility if the hoses can be cleared for flight as is. Some alternatives include delaying the launch for days if the hoses can be somehow modified quickly and easily, constructing new custom hoses or basically launching with the hose problems as is and living with the problem. This would require significantly revamping all the procedures for how the STS 130 crew would attach and activate Tranquility at the ISS. In this case the mission could potentially be shortened by deleting one or more of the planned three spacewalks. New high pressure ammonia hoses could then be built, delivered and installed on a future shuttle flight.

Image caption: NASA technician proudly enjoys his work preparing Tranquility for launch to the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer

A more drastic solution would be to switch the order of the remaining five shuttle flights and launch the STS 131 mission, currently slated for Mar. 18, ahead of STS 130. This alternative however would wreak havoc on this years schedule of the final flights before the shuttle is retired and appears less likely as an option, at least as of today. In order to switch the missions, Endeavour would necessarily have to be rolled back off Pad 39 A and be returned to wait inside the VAB since NASA now has only one functioning shuttle launch pad. The second pad, 39 B, was transferred to the Constellation program last May for launch of the Ares 1 X rocket. To accommodate the new Ares booster, Pad 39 B is being dismantled and is no longer capable of launching space shuttles.

Beutel said to me that, “NASA managers are assessing the possible options to address this. We should have a better idea where things are heading early next week”.

Just two days ago on Jan 6, I attended the rollout of Endeavour to Launch Pad 39 A during a week of uncommonly frigid weather here in Florida at the Kennedy Space Center and all systems remain go. There are no issues with Endeavour itself at this time and NASA is diligently taking care to shelter Endeavour at the pad from the cold and maintain it at a safe temperature with heaters and warm air purges. Pre-launch propellant servicing is in progress throughout the weekend.

NASA held a media briefing on Tranquility on Friday which I attended was able to observe Tranquility first hand inside the Space Station Processing Facility (see photos). The current plan is to place Tranquility inside the payload transport canister located nearby inside the facility and then transport it to the launch pad on Jan 15.

Tranquility is a new module that will house critical life support systems for the orbiting outpost as well as exercise gear important for maintaining the well being and stamina of the astronaut crew as they roam about the ISS. Tranquility will also be utilized for some science experiments. The Cupola observation module is joined to Tranquility. Both modules will be delivered to the ISS by the STS 130 crew.

Shuttle Endeavour Rolled to Pad; Countdown to the Final Five Begins

Rollout of Endeavour atop mobile launch platform. Credit: Ken Kremer

Space Shuttle Endeavour was rolled out to its seaside launch pad today (Jan. 6) at the Kennedy Space Center, officially starting the clock for the ‘Final Five’ flights. These five will close out the Space Shuttle era forever by the end of 2010 or early 2011 unless the program is extended for a few missions by President Obama.

I was totally thrilled to witness the trek first hand from just yards away as central Florida was gripped by a rare and truly ‘bone chilling’ cold snap. Endeavour was bolted atop the mobile launch platform (MLP) and hauled out to the pad at about 0.5 MPH by the giant crawler-transporter which dates back to the Apollo moon landing Era of the 1960’s.

The frigid 3.4 mile journey from the cavernous Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) along the crawlerway to launch pad 39 A began in darkness in the overnight hours, with ‘first motion’ at 4:13 AM. The massive 17 million pound stack was declared ‘hard down” and secured at the pad at 10:37 AM.

Endeavour at Dawn. Credit: Ken Kremer

Along the way we observed a remarkable clump of icicles (see photo) that formed in the below freezing temperatures. So it felt more like sunny Antarctica then sunny Florida. And all us media and NASA technicians were outfitted with several layers of winter attire more appropriate for the recent ‘bone chilling’ Soyuz launch in Kazakhstan on Dec 20.

Endeavour is scheduled to liftoff on February 7, for what is currently planned to be the final night launch and is targeted for 4:39 AM. The goal of the 13 day STS 130 space station assembly mission is to deliver the last of three interconnecting nodes, dubbed ‘Tranquility’, along with the seven windowed Cupola observation module. See my earlier story here. NASA spokesman Allard Beutel said that these payloads will be delivered to the pad on Jan 15 and then be installed inside Endeavour’s giant cargo bay for the trip to space.

‘Tranquility’ is the final major US element remaining for the International Space Station (ISS) and will be attached to the Unity connecting Node. The unique Cupola module will afford astronauts a spectacular 360 degree panoramic view of the Earth, the station and the cosmos.

“Things are going really well for our launch on February 7th, according to Dana Hutcherson, the Endeavour flow director. We spoke as Endeavour was climbing up the last few meters of the ramp behind us leading to the pad. “We’re not tracking any major issues and there are no concerns at this time. We have about 7 days of contingency time in the pad flow. So everything is looking really well”.

Endeavour’s crew of six plans to arrive at the Cape on Jan 19 for several days of final training, equipment familiarization and a launch dress rehearsal, known as the Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test, or TCDT, which will simulate countdown activities at Kennedy. NASA’s executive level shuttle management team will meet on Jan 27 to review all aspects of mission processing and preparations and will then set an official launch date.

Photo Album of Endeavour Rollout on 6 Jan 2010 by Ken Kremer

Rollout of Endeavour  atop mobile launch platform, side view. Credit: Ken Kremer
Caption: Rollout of Endeavour atop mobile launch platform, side view. Credit: Ken Kremer

Reflections along the crawlerway. Credit: Ken Kremer
Endeavour climbs up ramp to Pad 39 A. Credit: Ken Kremer
Icicles form on a ‘bone chilling’ Sunny Florida day. Credit: Ken Kremer
Ken Kremer at Pad 39 A

New Year’s Greetings from TEAM ISS and 2010 ISS Calendar

The International Space Station at New Year’s 2010 photographed by the STS 129 crew of shuttle Atlantis

The newly enlarged crew of Team ISS sends New Year’s greetings welcoming in 2010 to all earthlings over this holiday weekend. “We thank you for your support and interest in this current chapter of human exploration and discovery. We wish you a very fruitful and happy New Year”.

New Year’s is one of the few holidays in common to everyone aboard the International Space Station. The current multicultural Expedition 22 staff comprises five cosmonauts and astronauts; 2 Russians, 2 Americans and 1 Japanese. The last three crew members arrived bearing Christmas presents and Santa on Dec 22.

ISS commander Jeff Williams (NASA) explained the New Year’s celebration in a special holiday message from space; “New Year’s Day is somewhat unique from many other holidays celebrated on ISS. Because we are an international crew, the allotment of about 8 designated holidays per year are shared among the different nationalities. Most of the holidays belong to one nationality represented on the crew and the traditions are shared with the other crewmembers. Of course, that provides a great opportunity to get another glimpse into the different cultures and traditions among us. New Year’s Day also provides that glimpse into the traditions of others but is unique in that everybody represented on board celebrates it at home. It is a common holiday among all the crewmembers”.

Caption: NASA astronaut and current ISS commander Jeffrey Williams, Expedition 22 commander, services the Advanced Plant Experiments on Orbit-Cambium (APEX-C) payload in the Minus Eighty Laboratory Freezer for ISS-2 (MELFI-2) in the Destiny laboratory of the International Space Station. Williams sent New Years’ greeting to all Earthlings on behalf of the entire crew of Expedition 22

Williams elaborated, “We will incorporate elements of everybody’s traditions into our day, particularly around the dinner table”. They will also have some time for snapping a few pictures and the most precious tradition of all. Each will have time allotted to spend with their families via video conference.

Nevertheless, even on their ‘official’ days off the crew must still conduct certain minimal maintenance chores to keep the orbiting outpost running smoothly as well as an exercise regimen to keep their own bodies running smoothly in the never ending weightless environment.

2009 was a year of great accomplishment for the ISS in terms of achieving significant milestones for assembly and science which started 11 years ago back in 1998. The 800,000 pound ISS is now 86% complete and saw the full activation of the European and Japanese science laboratories, Columbus and Kibo. The crew size was expanded to its full complement of six for the first time and all the international partners were represented. The inaugural voyage of Japans HTV cargo freighter was flawless. The Russians added the new Poisk module, essential for docking of Soyuz and Progress vehicles. Four Space Shuttle missions brought up the final set of power generating solar arrays, the last segments of Kibo, and a massive stockpile of numerous spares parts, living supplies including the COLBERT Treadmill and science research equipment essential for maintaining crew life support and scientific activities after the shuttle fleet is retired by year’s end or early 2011.

The year ahead in 2010 will be equally exciting as the final five shuttle flights complete the assembly of the ISS and the outpost transitions to the full science utilization for which it was designed. There is no word yet from the Obama Admisistration on possibly extending the shuttle program with one or more flights (see earlier report).

Shuttle Endeavour is set to rollout to launch pad 39 A on January 6 in preparation for a February 7 blastoff with the Tranquility and Cupola modules (See my earlier story). Watch for my on site rollout coverage at the Kennedy Space Center, weather permitting.

The work schedule for Expedition 22 ramps up quickly after the New Year’s break. To make way for attachment of Tranquility and Cupola, the crew must move a NASA docking port (Pressurized Mating Adapter PMA 3) on Jan. 5 which is currently attached to their intended docking port on the Unity connecting module. PMA 3 will be relocated to the earth facing port using the Canadian built Space Station Robotic Arm. Cosmonauts Suraev and Kotov conduct a spacewalk on Jan. 14 to complete the outfitting of the Poisk module and retrieve science hardware. Then on Jan 20, Jeff Williams and Max Suraev will fly the Soyuz spacecraft (TMA -16) that brought them to the station from its current location on the end of the Russian Zvezda service module to the new Poisk module.

NASA has created a downloadable 2010 International Space Station Calendar that describes the historic milestones of the assembly and science work being done at the outpost. The calendar is filled with great photos of the construction and of the crews that have lived aboard and a graphic describing all the components.

Caption: Expedition 22 crew members take a break from training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center to pose for a crew portrait. From the left (front row) are NASA astronaut Jeffrey Williams, commander; and Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, flight engineer. From the left (back row) are NASA astronaut T.J. Creamer, Russian cosmonaut Maxim Suraev and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Soichi Noguchi, all flight engineers

Lead Image Caption: The International Space Station at New Year’s 2010 photographed by the STS 129 crew of shuttle Atlantis

Santa’s Helpers arrive at ISS bearing Christmas Gifts

5 of Santa’s helpers round out the Expedition 22 crew aboard the ISS. Front row: Jeff Williams (left), Maxim Suraev. Back row: Oleg Kotov, T.J. Creamer and Soichi Noguchi.

In a stunning surprise, Santa’s helpers and elves floated into the International Space Station (ISS) on Tuesday (Dec. 22) bearing a Christmas tree, massive (but weightless) sacks of presents and boundless cheer. They had departed Earth from frigid Baikonur on Dec 20. The supposed cosmonauts and astronauts had apparently been magically transformed just moments before docking at the ISS. Without notice they were summarily pressed into Santa’s elite “Good Will” corps for special duty to bring holiday cheer and good tidings to all, especially all of Earth’s Children !

After opening the hatches between their Soyuz TMA 17 capsule and the ISS, the newly christened helpers popped into view led by a smiling Oleg Kotov. He proudly hoisted the precious Christmas Tree ahead, topped by a dangling Santa. Although Santa was clearly honored to be first aboard, he didn’t quite know which way was up and was briefly heard to be asking about the safety briefing on climbing down the newly installed Space Chimney on last week’s daring and first of its kind Spacewalk.

Expedition 22 crew of 5 Elite Santa helpers and elves wearing festive holiday hats inside the Zvezda Service Module adorned with Christmas tree. Credit: Santa
Expedition 22 crew of 5 Elite Santa helpers and elves wearing festive holiday hats inside the Zvezda Service Module adorned with Christmas tree. Credit: Santa

Soichi Noguchi lugging massive sacks of Christmas presents through hatch into ISS, with no prior training !  Credit: Santa
Soichi Noguchi lugging massive sacks of Christmas presents through hatch into ISS, with no prior training ! Credit: Santa
Soichi Noguchi was next to float through, carefully navigating forwards with a giant white sack of presents slung over his shoulder so as not to damage the station walls. No black coal evident here ! Bringing up the rear was the lone Elf, Tim Creamer, sporting genuine pointy elf ears and elegant elven crafted shoes.

Two more of Santa’s helpers, Jeff Willams and Maxim Sureav, were already aboard the ISS and busy hanging Christmas stockings and decorations for the new arrivals.

After cobbling together the last presents for Santa’s world wide journey, the crew will bid Santa Adieu for the inaugural Chimney ride back to Earth. Good Luck Santa ! It’s a long but thrilling way down.

On Christmas Day the Expedition 22 crew will relax before beginning the busy final assembly of the ISS.

Meanwhile another special Santa squad is burning the midnight oil to finish last minute requests from the very best children and keeping Space Shuttle Endeavour toasty warm at the toy workshop inside her big house (Vehicle Assembly Building) at the Kennedy Space Center.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holiday’s to All !

Peace be with you

Santa’s Soyuz Express TMA-17 capsule arrives with helpers and gifts after sledding 2 days through the heavens.  Rudolf not visible here. Credit: NASA
Santa’s Soyuz Express TMA-17 capsule arrives with helpers and gifts after sledding 2 days through the heavens. Rudolf not visible here. Credit: NASA

Mars 2016 Methane Orbiter: Searching for Signs of Life

Elements of the ESA-NASA ExoMars program 2016-2018. Credit: ESA


The new joint Mars exploration program of NASA and ESA is quickly pushing forward to implement an agreed upon framework to construct an ambitious new generation of red planet orbiters and landers starting with the 2016 and 2018 launch windows.

The European-led ExoMars Trace Gas Mission Orbiter (TGM) has been selected as the first spacecraft of the joint initiative and is set to launch in January 2016 aboard a NASA supplied Atlas 5 rocket for a 9 month cruise to Mars. The purpose is to study trace gases in the martian atmosphere, in particular the sources and concentration of methane which has significant biological implications. Variable amounts of methane have been detected by a martian orbiter and ground based telescopes on earth. The orbiter will likely be accompanied by a small static lander provided by ESA and dubbed the Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM).

The NASA Mars Program is shifting its science strategy to coincide with the new joint venture with ESA and also to build upon recent discoveries from the current international fleet of martian orbiters and surface explorers Spirit, Opportunity and Phoenix (see my earlier mars mosaics). Doug McCuiston, NASA’s director of Mars Exploration at NASA HQ told me in an interview that, “NASA is progressing quickly from ‘Follow the Water’ through assessing habitability and on to a theme of ‘Seeking the Signs of Life’. Looking directly for life is probably a needle in the haystack, but the signatures of past or present life may be more wide spread through organics, methane sources, etc”.

NASA and ESA will issue an “Announcement of Opportunity for the orbiter in January 2010” soliciting proposals for a suite of science instruments according to McCuiston. “The science instruments will be competitively selected. They are open to participation by US scientists who can also serve as the Principal Investigators (PI’s)”. Proposals are due in 3 months and will be jointly evaluated by NASA and ESA. Instrument selections are targeted for announcement in July 2010 and the entire cost of the NASA funded instruments is cost capped at $100 million.

Mars Trace Gas Mission orbiter slated for 2016 launch is the first spacecraft in the new ESA & NASA Mars Exploration Joint Initiative. Credit: NASA ESA
Mars Trace Gas Mission orbiter slated for 2016 launch is the first spacecraft in the new ESA & NASA Mars Exploration Joint Initiative. Credit: NASA ESA

“The 2016 mission must still be formally approved by NASA after a Preliminary Design Review, which will occur either in late 2010 or early 2011. Funding until then is covered in the Mars Program’s Next Decade wedge, where all new-start missions reside until approved, or not, by the Agency”, McCuiston told me. ESA’s Council of Ministers just gave the “green light” and formally approved an initial budget of 850 million euros ($1.2 Billion) to start implementing their ExoMars program for the 2016 and 2018 missions on 17 December at ESA Headquarters in Paris, France. Another 150 million euros will be requested within two years to complete the funding requirement for both missions.

ESA has had to repeatedly delay its own ExoMars spacecraft program since it was announced several years ago due to growing complexity, insufficient budgets and technical challenges resulting in a de-scoping of the science objectives and a reduction in weight of the landed science payload. The ExoMars rover was originally scheduled to launch in 2009 and is now set for 2018 as part of the new architecture.

The Trace Gas orbiter combines elements of ESA’s earlier proposed ExoMars orbiter and NASA’s proposed Mars Science Orbiter. As currently envisioned the spacecraft will have a mass of about 1100 kg and carry a roughly 115 kg science payload, the minimum deemed necessary to accomplish its goals. The instruments must be highly sensitive in order to be capable of detecting the identity and extremely low concentration of atmospheric trace gases, characterizing the spatial and temporal variation of methane and other important species, locating the source origin of the trace gases and determining if they are caused by biologic or geologic processes. Current photochemical models cannot explain the presence of methane in the martain atmosphere nor its rapid appearance and destruction in space, time or quantity.

An Atlas rocket similar to this vehicle I observed at Cape Canaveral Pad 41 is projected to launch the 2016 Mars orbiter. Credit: Ken Kremer
An Atlas rocket similar to this vehicle I observed at Cape Canaveral Pad 41 is projected to launch the 2016 Mars orbiter. Credit: Ken Kremer

Among the instruments planned are a trace gas detector and mapper, a thermal infrared imager and both a wide angle camera and a high resolution stereo color camera (1 – 2 meter resolution). “All the data will be jointly shared and will comply with NASA’s policies on fully open access and posting into the Planetary Data System”, said McCuiston.
Another key objective of the orbiter will be to establish a data relay capability for all surface missions up to 2022, starting with 2016 lander and two rovers slotted for 2018. This timeframe could potentially coincide with Mars Sample Return missions, a long sought goal of many scientists.

If the budget allows, ESA plans to piggyback a small companion lander (EDM) which would test critical technologies for future missions. McCuiston informed me that, “The objective of this ESA Technology Demonstrator is validating the ability to land moderate payloads, so the landing site selection will not be science-driven. So expect something like Meridiani or Gusev—large, flat and safe. NASA will assist ESA engineering as requested, and within ITAR constraints.” EDM will use parachutes, radar and clusters of pulsing liquid propulsion thrusters to land.

“ESA plans a competitive call for instruments on their 3-4 kg payload”, McCuiston explained. “The Announcement of Opportunity will be open to US proposers as well so there may be some US PI’s. ESA wants a camera to ‘prove’ they got to the ground. Otherwise there is no significant role planned for NASA in the EDM”.

The lander would likely function as a weather station and be relatively short lived, perhaps 8 Sols or martian days, depending on the capacity of the batteries. ESA is not including a long term power source, such as from solar arrays, so the surface science will thus be limited in duration.

The orbiter and lander would separate upon arrival at Mars. The orbiter will use a series of aerobraking maneuvers to eventually settle into a 400 km high circular science orbit inclined at about 74 degrees.

The joint Mars architecture was formally agreed upon last summer at a bilateral meeting between Ed Weiler (NASA) and David Southwood (ESA) in Plymouth, UK. Weiler is NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate and Southwood is ESA’s Director of Science and Robotic Exploration. They signed an agreement creating the Mars Exploration Joint Initiative (MEJI) which essentially weds the Mars programs of NASA and ESA and delineates their respective program responsibilities and goals.

“The key to moving forward on Mars exploration is international collaboration with Europe”, Weiler said to me in an interview. “We don’t have enough money to do these missions separately. The easy things have been done and the new ones are more complex and expensive. Cost overruns on Mars Science Lab (MSL) have created budgetary problems for future mars missions”. To pay for the MSL overrun, funds have to be taken from future mars budget allocations from fiscal years 2010 to 2014.

“2016 is a logical starting point to work together. NASA can have a 2016 mission if we work with Europe but not if we work alone. We can do so much more by working together since we both have the same objectives scientifically and want to carry out the same types of mission”. Weiler and Southwood instructed their respective science teams to meet and lay out a realistic and scientifically justifiable approach. Weiler explained to me that his goal and hope was to reinstate an exciting Mars architecture with new spacecraft launching at every opportunity which occurs every 26 months and which advance the state of the art for science. “It’s very important to demonstrate a critical new technology on each succeeding mission”.

More on the 2018 mission plan and beyond in a follow up report.

Mars from orbit.  Valles Marineris and Volcanic region
Mars from orbit. Valles Marineris and Volcanic region