Next Soyuz Crew Will Take 6-Hour Fast-Track to Space Station

The next Soyuz crew will be the first to try out the new abbreviated four-orbit rendezvous with the International Space Station. This relatively new, modified launch and docking profile for the Russian ships has been tried successfully with three Progress resupply vehicles, and now Roscosmos and NASA have agreed to try it on a human flight.

“We tried this approach on the cargo vehicles, and now we will try to do it on the manned vehicles,” said Sergei Krikalev, former cosmonaut, who now leads the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center near Moscow, speaking through an interpreter on NASA TV. “Now we have onboard new machinery and new software, so the vehicle is more autonomous, so it’s possible to do a lot onboard the vehicle and to calculate the burns so they don’t consume a lot of fuel.”

In the past, Soyuz manned capsules and Progress supply ships were launched on trajectories that required about two days, or 34 orbits, to reach the ISS. The new fast-track trajectory has the rocket launching shortly after the ISS passes overhead. Then, additional firings of the vehicle’s thrusters early in its mission expedites the time required for a Russian vehicle to reach the Station.

Liftoff of the Soyuz TMA-08M spacecraft is scheduled for 4:43 p.m. EDT (20:43 UTC) on March 28 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Docking is set for 10:31 p.m. EDT (02:31 UTC).

“The Soyuz is not the most comfortable vehicle to be in for an extended period of time,” said NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy who is part of the Expedition 35/36 crew who will make the first fast-track flight. “The toilet is right next to where you sleep which are right next to your buddy and eating and all; it’s like living for a day in a smart car or a Volkswagen Beetle….So the benefit to us is we get to the space station faster with the facilities that it offers, much more comfortable type of environment to be in and it also demonstrates some technology that’s useful in getting to the space station on that same day.”

One of the reasons given in the past for having the two-day or even three-day flight in the Soyuz was to allow the crew members time to get acclimated to being in a weightless environment. This new fast approach doesn’t allow for that, but Cassidy said he doesn’t think that thinking is really applicable, since the cramped Soyuz is so different from the voluminous space station.

“The adaptation of that I think is a little bit different,” he said. “You’re really not truly adapting in that day and a half. Two days on the Soyuz, that same adaptation that you’ll have once you get to the space station just because it’s a different perspective for your brain to get its arms around.”

The Soyuz took the first crew to the International Space Station in November 2000, and since that time, at least one Soyuz has always been at the Station, generally to bring the crews back and forth, but also to serve as a lifeboat should the crew have to return to Earth unexpectedly. Now that the space shuttles have been retired, the Soyuz is currently the only way for ISS crews to go to and from the Station. When there is a full crew of six on board, that means two Soyuz are docked at the ISS.

SpaceX is shooting for sometime in 2015 for the first crew flights of the Dragon to the ISS.

Spotting the Dragon: How to See SpaceX on Approach to the ISS This Weekend

SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft may be appearing in a backyard sky near you this weekend. Scheduled to launch this Friday on March 1st at 10:10 AM Eastern Standard Time (EST)/15:10 Universal Time (UT), this will be the 3rd resupply flight for the Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS).  And the great news is, you may just be able to catch the spacecraft as it chases down the ISS worldwide.

The Space Shuttle and the ISS captured by the author as seen from Northern Maine shortly after undocking in June, 2007. 

Catching a satellite in low Earth orbit is an unforgettable sight. Satellites appear as moving “stars” against the background sky, shining steadily (unless they’re tumbling!) in the sunlight overhead in the dawn or dusk sky. Occasionally, you may catch a flare in brightness as a reflective panel catches the sunlight just right. The Hubble Space Telescope and the Iridium constellation of satellites can flare in this fashion.

At 109 metres in size, the ISS is the largest object ever constructed in orbit and is easily visible to the naked eye. It has an angular diameter of about 50” when directly overhead (about the visual size of Saturn plus rings near opposition). I can just make out a tiny box-like structure with binoculars when it passes overhead. If the orientation of the station and its solar panels is just right, it looks like a tiny luminous Star Wars TIE fighter as viewed through binoculars!

Dragon in the processing hangar at Cape Canaveral. (Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett).
Dragon in the processing hangar at Cape Canaveral. (Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett).

But what’s even more amazing is to watch a spacecraft rendezvous with the ISS, as diligent observers may witness this weekend. Your best bet will be to use predictions for ISS passes from your location. Heavens-Above, CALSky and Space Weather all have simple trackers for sky watchers. More advanced observers may want to use an application known as Orbitron which allows you to manually load updated Two-Line Element sets (TLEs) from Celestrak or NORAD’s Space-Track website for use in the field sans Internet connection. Note that Space-Track requires permission to access; they welcome amateur sat-spotters and educators, but they also want to assure that no “rogue entities” are accessing the site! Continue reading “Spotting the Dragon: How to See SpaceX on Approach to the ISS This Weekend”

Indian Rocket Launches Swarm of International Mini Satellites

A Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) successfully launched from India today, sending seven different international satellites into orbit. Launch was at 7:31 a.m. EST (12:31 UTC) and on board were three Canadian-built spacecraft including a small asteroid-hunting satellite (weighing in at just 74 kg) called NEOSSat, other small satellites from the UK, Austria and Denmark and an India-France joint effort called SARAL, an Earth observation satellite, the primary payload for the launch.

Reports indicate all seven satellites were placed in their proper orbits and after their initial check-outs will being their missions.

NEOSSat (Near-Earth Object Surveillance Satellite)will track large asteroids that may come close to Earth and also track space debris in orbit. The suitcase-sized NEOSSat will orbit approximately 800 kilometers above the Earth, searching for objects that are difficult to spot using ground-based telescopes. Because of its location, NEOSSat will not be limited by the day-night cycle and will operate continuously.

“NEOSSat will discover many asteroids much faster than can be done from the ground alone,” said Alan Hildebrand of the University of Calgary. “Its most exciting result, however, will probably be discovering new targets for exploration by both manned and unmanned space missions.”

SARAL will be monitoring climate on Earth; CanX-3 BRITE (BRIght Target Explorer) is billed as the smallest astronomical telescope looking for faint objects; Sapphire is a military satellite that will keep track of objects orbiting between 3,800 and 25,000 miles (6,000 and 40,000 kilometers) from Earth; TUGSat-1 BRITE from Austria will monitor changes in brightness in stars; AAUSat 3 from Denmark will moniter ship traffic on Earth’s oceans, and STRaND-1 is a nanosatellite carrying a smartphone, has unique “screaming in space” experiment.

See more information on each satellite on our preview article.

Freaky Fast Delivery: Progress Blasts Off, Docks at ISS Hours Later

The Progress 50 resupply ship has now arrived at the International Space Station, just hours after it launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Launch took place at 9:41 a.m. EST, (14:40 UTC) today (February 11, 2013) and it took only a four-orbit journey to rendezvous with the ISS, docking at 3:34 pm EST (20:35 UTC).

“Progress 50 just docked to our Space Station!” Tweeted astronaut Chris Hadfield (@Cmdr_Hadfield) “I was right at the hatch, it made a quick sliding scraping noise & then a solid thud. Success!”

This is third successful execution of the new, modified launch and docking profile for the Russion Progress ships, and its success is paving the way for its first use on a manned mission – possibly as early as March 2013 for Soyuz TMA-08, Roscosmos said via Facebook. Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka has been quoted as saying it is every cosmonaut’s dream to only have a 6-hour flight in the cramped Soyuz.

Watch the launch and docking video below:


Normally, Progress supply ships –and manned Soyuz capsules — are launched on trajectories that require about two days, or 34 orbits, to reach the ISS. The new fast-track trajectory has the rocket launching shortly after the ISS passes overhead — today, the space station was just 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) downrange from the launch site at the time of liftoff. Then additional firings of the Progress engines early in its mission expedites the time required for a Russian vehicle to reach the complex.

That also give the ISS crew the chance to actually see the launch from orbit. Today, NASA-TV commentator Kyle Herring said that ISS commander Kevin Ford reported he was able to see the first stage separation, which occurred about two minutes after launch. Herring said the cameras on the International Space Station were pointed to try and observe the launch. We’ll add any images here, if the cameras were able to capture anything.

Progress 50 is carrying 2.9 tons of supplies and equipment, including 800 kg (1,764 pounds) of space station propellant, 50 kg (110 lbs)of oxygen and air, 420 kg (926lbs) of water and 1,360 kg (3,000 lbs) of spare parts, science gear and other dry cargo. Right now, this Progress is scheduled to remain docked at the ISS until late April. The previous Progress cargo ship undocked from the Pirs module of the International Space Station at 13:15 GMT on Saturday February 9 and re-entered Earth’s atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean, burning up during re-entry.

Earlier this month, NASA’s Space Station Program Manager Mike Suffradini said the space station partners have tentatively agreed to try a the fast-track trajectory with a manned mission “at least once or twice to show we have the capability in case we need to get to ISS quick for any reason.”

He added that the decision to fly like this long-term is still to be determined.

This article has been updated.

Continuing the Landsat Mission: New Satellite Launches to Space

NASA launched a successor to the long-time Landsat satellite Earth-observing program today, sending the Landsat Data Continuity Mission satellite to orbit via an Atlas V rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base at 1:02 EST (10:02 PST, 18:02 UTC). The new LDCM carries two new instruments, the Operational Land Imager and the Thermal Infrared Sensor, which will collect data that are compatible with data from previous Landsat mission, 5 and 7, and improve upon it with advanced instrument designs that are more sensitive to changes to the land surface, NASA said. This is the eighth Landsat satellite, and after extensive on-orbit testing and certified for its mission, it will be renamed Landsat 8.

See the launch video, below:

LDCM will continue the Landsat program’s 40-year data record of monitoring Earth from space, making critical observations to help with energy and water management, forest monitoring, human and environmental health, urban planning, disaster recovery and agriculture.

The new satellite is about the size of a large SUV, weighing 2,780 kg (6,133-pounds). The two instruments will monitor Earth’s surface in visible and multiple infrared wavelengths, resolving large-scale surface features and collecting some 400 images per day. The satellite is equipped with a 3.14-terabyte solid-state recorder to store data between downlink sessions.

“This will be the best Landsat satellite launched to date,” said Jim Irons, LDCM project scientist at Goddard Spaceflight Center, “the best Landsat satellite ever in terms of the quality and quantity of the data collected by the LDCM sensors.”

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas-V rocket with the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM) spacecraft onboard is seen as it launches on Monday, Feb. 11, 2013 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Credit: NASA
The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas-V rocket with the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM) spacecraft onboard is seen as it launches on Monday, Feb. 11, 2013 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Credit: NASA

Irons said the Landsat program is a critical and extremely valuable national asset.

“Since the launch of Landsat 1, we have seen — and we have caused — dramatic changes to the global land surface that continue today at rates unprecedented in human history,” he said. “These changes are due to an increasing population, advancing technologies and climate change. LDCM will extend and improve upon the Landsat record of landscape change. The resulting observations and information will be critical to managing increasing demands on land resources and preparing for inevitable changes to the global land surface.”

Recently, Landsat 5 successfully set the new Guinness World Records title for ‘Longest-operating Earth observation satellite.’ It was launched on March 1, 1984, and outlived its three-year design life. It delivered high-quality, global data of Earth’s land surface for 28 years and 10 months, completing over 150,000 orbits and sending back more than 2.5 million images of Earth’s surface. On Dec. 21, 2012 the USGS announced Landsat 5 would be decommissioned in the coming months after the failure of a redundant gyroscope. The satellite carries three gyroscopes for attitude control and needs two to maintain control.

The Landsat Program is managed by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

Read more about the Landsat Program here.

This timeline shows the continuing Landsat Program:

Timeline showing lifespans of the Landsat satellites. Credit: NASA
Timeline showing lifespans of the Landsat satellites. Credit: NASA

This video shows the separation of the spacecraft as it prepares to go into orbit:

Next Generation TDRS Satellite Launches to Orbit

NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System will get an upgrade as the first of a new generation of communications satellites was launched to orbit on Wednesday, January 30 at 8:48 p.m. EST from Cape Canaveral. See the launch video and more images of the launch, below.

The TDRS system provides a critical communications link to Earth for the International Space Station, the Hubble Space Telescope and many satellites.

“TDRS-K bolsters our network of satellites that provides essential communications to support space exploration,” said Badri Younes, deputy associate administrator for Space Communications and Navigation at NASA. “It will improve the overall health and longevity of our system.”

The TDRS system provides tracking, telemetry, command and high-bandwidth data return services for numerous science and human exploration missions orbiting Earth. These include the International Space Station and NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

“With this launch, NASA has begun the replenishment of our aging space network,” said Jeffrey Gramling, TDRS project manager. “This addition to our current fleet of seven will provide even greater capabilities to a network that has become key to enabling many of NASA’s scientific discoveries.”

TDRS-K was launched on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex-41. After a three-month test phase, NASA will accept the spacecraft for additional evaluation before putting the satellite into service.

The TDRS-K spacecraft includes several modifications from older satellites in the TDRS system, including redesigned telecommunications payload electronics and a high-performance solar panel designed for more spacecraft power to meet growing S-band requirements. Another significant design change, the return to ground-based processing of data, will allow the system to service more customers with evolving communication requirements.

The next TDRS spacecraft, TDRS-L, is scheduled for launch in 2014. TDRS-M’s manufacturing process will be completed in 2015.

The Atlas rocket clears the utility tower.  Credit: John O'Connor/nasatech.
The Atlas rocket clears the utility tower. Credit: John O'Connor/nasatech.
Tower Clear!  The vehicle begins to gain speed as she burns off fuel. Credit: John O'Connor/nasatech/ Tower Clear! T
he vehicle begins to gain speed as she burns off fuel. Credit: John O'Connor/nasatech.
The TDRS-K launch at the beginning of the roll program. Credit: John O'Connor/nasatech.
The TDRS-K launch at the beginning of the roll program. Credit: John O'Connor/nasatech.

See more images and details of the launch at the nasatech website.

Sources: nasatech, NASA

Iran Launches a Monkey on a Suborbital Rocket

According to Iran state media, Iran launched a suborbital rocket last week with a passenger aboard: a monkey. A gray tufted monkey survived the flight, riding inside an “indigenous bio-capsule” which was recovered after the flight. While the US and other nations are worried that Iran’s real goal is to have a nuclear missile program, Iran’s Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi told state television that this launch was a “big step” towards sending astronauts into space by 2020.

Iranian news agencies said the rocket traveled to an altitude of 120 kilometres (75 miles) for a suborbital flight. The space capsule was named Pishgam, which is “Pioneer” in Farsi. The launch has not yet been independently verified.

“This success is the first step towards man conquering the space and it paves the way for other moves,” General Vahidi said, but added that the process of putting a human into space would be a lengthy one.

“Today’s successful launch follows previous successes we had in launching (space) probes with other living creatures,” he said, referring to the launch in the past of a rat, turtles and worms into space.

A previous attempt in 2011 by Iran to put a monkey into space failed, and they never provided an explanation for the failure.

Much of Iran’s technological equipment derives from modified Chinese and North Korean technology. Iran denies that its long-range ballistic technology is linked to its atomic program.

Sources: SpaceRef, Fox News.

International Crew Launches to Space Station

The Soyuz TMA-07M rocket launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012 carrying the Expedition 34 crew to the International Space Station. Credit: NASA/Carla Cioffi

Heading off just as the Sun was setting amid frigid conditions at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, a trio of international explorers launched to space, on their way to the International Space Station. Chris Hadfield of the Canadian Space Agency, Tom Marshburn of NASA, Roman Romanenko of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) launched Wednesday at 12:12 UTC (7:12 a.m. EST, 6:12 p.m. Baikonur time). Their Soyuz TMA-07M performed flawlessly, and the crew is expected to dock with the Rassvet module on the Russian segment of the space station at 14:12 UTC (9:12 a.m. EST) on Friday, Dec. 21.

See the launch video below:

Temperatures were below freezing, with a windchill reported of -34 C at launch time. But as Hadfield told Universe Today, the Soyuz rocket is just as robust and one of the most reliable rockets ever. “The Soyuz launches all-weather, -40 degrees to +40 degrees,” Hadfield said. “It is rugged, built on experience, and it is not delicate. I trust it with my life.”

Hadfield, Marshburn and Romanenko will join their Expedition 34 crewmates already on board the ISS — Commander Kevin Ford and Flight Engineers Oleg Novitskiy and Evgeny Tarelkin — to bring the crew back to the standard size of six.

Two minutes into flight, the Soyuz rocket’s four liquid-fueled first stage boosters were jettisoned. Via NASA TV.

Hadfield will make history on March 15, 2013 as he will become the first Canadian astronaut to take command of the ISS.

The focus of Expedition 34/35 is scientific research, with the astronauts serving as subjects for human physiology tests, including examinations of astronaut bone loss.

While not officially decided yet, Hadfield indicated a spacewalk may be in order for him and one of his ISS crewmates to perform some needed maintenance outside the space station.

Expedition 34 NASA Flight Engineer Chris Hadfield of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), top, NASA Flight Engineer Tom Marshburn and Soyuz Commander Roman Romanenko wave farewell from the bottom of the Soyuz rocket. Credit: (NASA/Carla Cioffi)

During their stay, the crew will be busy welcoming both a Russian Progress and ESA’s ATV cargo ships, as well as two commercial resupply missions from SpaceX and the first flight of Orbital Science’s Cygnus spacecraft.

The crew also will also be conducting a wide range of physical science, Earth observation, human research and technology demonstration investigations. Experiments will investigate how fire behaves in space, which could help improve engine fuel efficiency and fire suppression methods in space and on Earth. Other research will look at fluids that change physical properties in the presence of a magnet, which could improve bridge and building designs to better withstand earthquakes. With the help of cameras set up by the crew, students on Earth are capturing photos of our planet.

For a look at the training done by Chris Hadfield in preparation for his flight, see our series “How to Train for Long Duration Space Flight.”

“One last kiss before I go – love under glass with my wife. It’s launch morning, I slept well, feel great,” Hadfield Tweeted this morning before launch.

Russia’s Soyuz Spacecraft: 46 Years and Still Soaring High


In just a couple of days a Soyuz rocket will lift off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, carrying NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn, Canadian Space Agency astronaut Chris Hadfield, and Russian Federal Space Agency cosmonaut Roman Romanenko within the TMA-07M capsule on a two-day trip to the ISS. While many improvements have been made to the Soyuz rockets and spacecraft since the first launch in 1966, the bottom line is that the Soyuz have become the world’s most used launch vehicles due to their consistent performance and relatively low cost.

Here, CSA astronaut Chris Hadfield talks about the Soyuz, briefly describing the strengths of the Russian technology that will once again take him and fellow Expedition 34/35 crew members to the ISS, where in March of next year he will become the first Canadian to take command of the Station.

“This is a safe and reliable and proven way to leave the Earth, and each successive Soyuz is different; each one has small changes. The role of the astronaut is to learn those small changes… and learn to apply them.”

– Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield

The T version of the Soyuz craft began flying manned missions in 1980 and in 1986 the TM versions were transporting crews to Mir. The TMA upgrade addressed previous astronaut/cosmonaut height restrictions and permits the Soyuz to be used as a lifeboat for ISS crews, if necessary.

Find out more about the long history of the Soyuz spacecraft here, and read more about today’s Soyuz rollout here.

Video: CSA. Inset image: NASA/Carla Cioffi

Expedition 34’s Ride to Space Rolls to the Launchpad

The Soyuz rocket is erected into position after being rolled out to the launch pad by train on Monday, December 17, 2012, at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Credit: (NASA/Carla Cioffi)

Early today the Soyuz rocket and Soyuz TMA-07M capsule were rolled out to the launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in preparation for the December 19 launch of the Expedition 34/35 crew. On board will be Flight Engineer Tom Marshburn of NASA, Soyuz Commander Roman Romanenko and Expedition 35 Commander Chris Hadfield of the Canadian Space Agency who will spend five months aboard the International Space Station.

We’ve been highlighting some of the training Hadfield has been through the past two and a half years, and per tradition, Hadfield and his crewmates were not present at the rollout today. Instead they were getting their hair cut. “I’m not superstitious,” Hadfield said, “but I’m all for traditions, especially ones that serve a good purpose. I’ll need short hair while I’m on the space station.”

The launch is scheduled for 12:12 UTC (7:12 a.m. EST) on Wednesday, beginning a two-day journey to the station.

See more images and a video of the rollout below:

The flags representing Kazakhstan and the nations of the three crewmembers who will launch in the Soyuz TMA-07M spacecraft are shown at the launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Monday, Dec. 17, 2012. From left to right are the flags of Russia, the United States, Canada and Kazakhstan. Credit: (NASA/Carla Cioffi)

During a call with the media last week, Hadfield also discussed another tradition, started by Yuri Gagarin in 1961 on the first human space flight. Gagarin stopped to urinate on the right rear tire of the transport bus that brought him to the launchpad, and since then all cosmonauts and astronauts, (reportedly both male and female) have urinated on the right rear tire of their transport buses before boarding their spacecraft.

“It’s a good idea because you are about to get into a rocket ship with a long time until you get to the next toilet,” Hadfield said. “So, it’s just a good idea — just like anyone going on a long trip — making sure everyone goes to the bathroom first. I’m all for traditions that help get people ready for doing things that are demanding, and which lend a sense of significance to them.”

Chris Hadfield, Roman Romanenko and Tom Marshburn At the Integration Facility at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Dec. 14, 2012. Credit: Roscosmos.

The Soyuz rocket is rolled out to the launch pad by train on Monday, December 17, 2012, at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Credit: (NASA/Carla Cioffi).

The Soyuz rocket preparing to leave the hanger, to be rolled out to the launch pad by train on Monday, Dec. 17, 2012, at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Credit: NASA

Hadfield getting a haircut before launch. Via Twitter.

You can see more images from the rollout at NASA HQ’s Expedition 34 Flickr page.