Astronomy Cast Ep. 449: Robots in Space!

When you think of a robot, you’re probably imagining some kind of human-shaped machine. And until now, the robotic spacecraft we’ve sent out into space to help us explore the Solar System look nothing like that. But that vision of robots is coming back, thanks to a few new robots in development by NASA and other groups.

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We usually record Astronomy Cast as a live Google+ Hangout on Air every Friday at 1:30 pm Pacific / 4:30 pm Eastern. You can watch here on Universe Today or from the Astronomy Cast Google+ page.

SpaceX Dragon Arrives at Space Station with Tons of Earth and Human Science Experiments

SpaceX’s Dragon CRS-10 cargo vehicle is attached to the International Space Station on Feb 23, 2017 after early morning capture by astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Thomas Pesquet using the robotic arm and subsequent berthing at Earth facing port on the Harmony module. It will stay for a month. Credit: NASA

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – A SpaceX Dragon supply ship jam packed with more than 2.5 tons of critical science gear, crew supplies and 40 mice successfully arrived this morning at the International Space Station (ISS) – where six humans from the US, Russia and France are living and working aboard.

Dragon reached the station four days after it was launched from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on Sunday, Feb. 19 on the first Falcon 9 rocket ever to blast off from historic launch pad 39A in a blaze of glory.

Astronauts Thomas Pesquet of ESA (European Space Agency) and station commander Shane Kimbrough of NASA deftly maneuvered the space station’s 57.7-foot (17.6-meter) Canadian-built Canadarm2 robotic arm to reach out and flawlessly capture the Dragon CRS-10 spacecraft at about 5:44 a.m. EST early Thursday, after it arrived at the station.

The SpaceX CRS-10 Dragon is pictured in the grips of the Canadarm2 shortly after its capture by astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Thomas Pesquet on Feb. 23, 2017. Credit: NASA TV

Pesquet and Kimbrough were working at the robotics work station inside the seven windowed Cupola module as they monitored Dragon’s approach for capture by the grappling snares on the terminus of the robotic arm this morning as the station was soaring over the northwest coast of Australia.

“Looks like we have a great Dragon capture,” said capcom astronaut Mike Hopkins.

“We want to congratulate all the teams working around the world for the successful arrival,” said Pesquet.

The million pound station is orbiting approximately 250 miles (400 km) above Earth.

SpaceX CRS-10 Dragon supply ship launched on Feb. 19, 2017 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida successfully arrives at the International Space Station on Feb. 23, 2017 for capture and berthing at station port on the Harmony module. Credit: NASA

The commercial Dragon cargo freighter arrived about 16 minutes earlier than originally planned.

The duo were assisted by experienced NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson. The 57 year old Whitson will soon set a record for most time spent in space by an American on April 24.

The gumdrop shaped Dragon cargo freighter slowly and methodically approached the station and the capture point through the required approach corridor during the final stages of the orbital chase.

After hovering at the capture point in free drift at a distance of about 34 feet (11 m) from the orbiting outpost, the crew members extended the robotic arm and Dragon was successfully plucked from free space using Canardarm2 at the grapple fixture located on the side of the supply ship.

The entire thrilling approach and grappling sequence was broadcast live on NASA TV.

SpaceX Dragon arrives at the 30 meter hold point during final approach to International Space Station on Feb. 23, 2017 for capture and berthing at station port on the Harmony module. Credit: NASA

Robotics officers on the ground at the NASA’s Johnson Space Center then took over and berthed Dragon to the Earth facing port on the Harmony module at about 8 a.m. as the mated craft were soaring over central America.

16 latches and bolts on the stations Common Berthing Mechanism (CBM) will hold Dragon firmly in place for a hard mate to the stations Harmony module.

4 gangs of 4 bolts were driven into place with ground commands from the robotics officer to firmly bolt Dragon to the nadir port on Harmony.

The second stage capture and Dragon installation was confrmed at 8:12 a.m. Feb 23 as the craft were flying over the US East Coast.

“Today’s’ re-rendezvous has gone by the book,” said NASA commentator Rob Navias.

“Dragon systems are in excellent shape.”

“There have been no issues and everything has gone as planned.”

“Today was smooth sailing as Dragon arrived below the space station and maneuvered its way through a carefully choreographed procedure to the grapple position for rendezvous and capture.”

“Dragon is now firmly attached to the International Space Station and the crew will begin unloading critical science payloads and supplies this afternoon.”

“Today’s’ re-rendezvous has gone by the book,” said NASA commentator Rob Navias.

“Dragon systems are in excellent shape.”

“There have been no issues and everything has gone as planned.”

Yesterday’s rendezvous was automatically aborted when a bad bit of navigational data was uplinked to Dragons relative GPS navigation system as it was about 0.7 miles below the station.

“The Dragon’s computers received an incorrect navigational update, triggering an automatic wave off. Dragon was sent on a “racetrack” trajectory in front of, above and behind the station for today’s second rendezvous attempt.”

There was never any danger to the crew, space station or Dragon. It merely arrived a day later than planned as it is fully equipped to do if needed.

The SpaceX Dragon was successfully installed to the Harmony module a few hours after it was captured with the Canadarm2 by the crew on Feb 23, 2017. This artists concept shows the location of several visiting vehicles including Dragon, Soyuz and BEAM expandable module. Credit: NASA

CRS-10 counts as the company’s tenth scheduled flight to deliver supplies, science experiments and technology demonstrations to the International Space Station (ISS).

The Dragon is the first of two cargo craft arriving at the station over two consecutive days.

The unpiloted Russian Progress 66 supply ship launched yesterday from Baikonur is slated to arrive early Friday morning with 2.9 tons of supplies. It will automatically dock at the Pirs docking module at about 3:45 a.m., with a trio of Russian cosmonauts monitoring all the action.

After conducting leak checks, the crew plans to open the hatch to Dragon later today.

They will quickly begin removing the highest priority science investigations and gear first.

Dragon will remain at the station for about 30 days.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo ship rests horizontal atop Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on 17 Feb 2017 as work crews use the access room to load ‘late stow’ science experiments aboard Dragon – as seen from inside the pad perimeter. This is the first rocket launched from pad 39A since the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttles in July 2011. Liftoff of the CRS-10 mission occurred on 19 Feb 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

1000 pounds of ‘late stow’ experiments were loaded the day before the originally planned Feb. 18 liftoff of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

Dragon was successfully launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center atop the 213-foot-tall (65-meter) SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at 9:38 a.m. EST on Feb. 19, 2017 from historic Launch Complex 39A to low Earth orbit.

Raindrops keep falling on the lens, as inaugural SpaceX Falcon 9/Dragon disappears into the low hanging rain clouds at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center after liftoff from pad 39A on Feb. 19, 2017. Dragon CRS-10 resupply mission is delivering over 5000 pounds of science and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Dragon is carrying more than 5500 pounds of equipment, gear, food, crew supplies, hardware and NASA’s Stratospheric Aerosol Gas Experiment III (SAGE III) ozone mapping science payload in support of the Expedition 50 and 51 crew members.

SAGE III will measure stratospheric ozone, aerosols, and other trace gases by locking onto the sun or moon and scanning a thin profile of the atmosphere. It is one of NASA’s longest running earth science programs.

Engineers at work processing NASA’s Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment III, or SAGE III instrument inside the Space Station Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida during exclusive visit by Ken Kremer/Universe Today in December 2016. Technicians are working in a super-clean ‘tent’ built in the SSPF high bay to protect SAGE III’s special optics and process the Ozone mapper for upcoming launch on the SpaceX CRS-10 Dragon cargo flight to the International Space Station in early 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The LIS lightning mapper will measure the amount, rate and energy of lightning as it strikes around the world from the altitude of the ISS as it orbits Earth. Its data will complement that from the recently orbited GLM lighting mapper lofted to geosynchronous aboard the NASA/NOAA GOES-R spacecraft instrument.

NASA’s RAVEN experiment will test autonomous docking technologies for spacecraft.

SAGE III and RAVEN were stowed in the Dragon’s unpressurized truck.

The research supplies and equipment brought up by Dragon will support over 250 scientific investigations to advance knowledge about the medical, psychological and biomedical challenges astronauts face during long-duration spaceflight.

The 40 mice will be used in a wound healing experiment to test therapies in microgravity.

An advanced plant growth habitat will launch soon to test better technologies for growing crops in space that could contribute to astronauts nutrition on long duration spaceflights.

SpaceX Dragon CRS-10 Cargo manifest from NASA:

TOTAL CARGO: 5489.5 lbs. / 2490 kg

TOTAL PRESSURIZED CARGO WITH PACKAGING: 3373.1 lbs. / 1530 kg

• Science Investigations 1613.8 lbs. / 732 kg
• Crew Supplies 652.6 lbs. / 296 kg
• Vehicle Hardware 842.2 lbs. / 382 kg
• Spacewalk Equipment 22.0 lbs. / 10 kg
• Computer Resources 24.2 lbs. / 11 kg
• Russian Hardware 48.5 lbs. / 22 kg

UNPRESSURIZED

• SAGE-III & STP-H5 Lightning Imaging Sensor 2116.4 lbs. / 960 kg

Historic maiden blastoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center) at 9:38 a.m. EDT on Feb 19, 2017, on Dragon CRS-10 resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s onsite CRS-10 mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Looking for Canada’s Next Generation of Space Explorers

For decades, Canada has made significant contributions to the field of space exploration. These include the development of sophisticated robotics, optics, participation in important research, and sending astronauts into space as part of NASA missions. And who can forget Chris Hadfield, Mr. “Space Oddity” himself? In addition to being the first Canadian to command the ISS, he is also known worldwide as the man who made space exploration fun and accessible through social media.

And in recent statement, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has announced that it is looking for new recruits to become the next generation of Canadian astronauts. With two positions available, they are looking for applicants who embody the best qualities of astronauts, which includes a background in science and technology, exceptional physical fitness, and a desire to advance the cause of space exploration.

Over the course of the past few decades, the Canadian Space Agency has established a reputation for the development of space-related technologies. In 1962, Canada deployed the Alouette satellite, which made it the third nation – after the US and USSR – to design and build its own artificial Earth satellite. And in 1972, Canada became the first country to deploy a domestic communications satellite, known as Anik 1 A1.

The "Canadarm", pictured here as part of Space Shuttle mission STS-2, Nov. 1981. Credit: NASA
The “Canadarm”, pictured here as part of Space Shuttle mission STS-2, it’s first deployment to space, in November of 1981. Credit: NASA

Perhaps the best-known example of Canada’s achievements comes in the field of robotics, and goes by the name of the Shuttle Remote Manipulator System (aka. “the Canadarm“). This robotic arm was introduced in 1981, and quickly became a regular feature within the Space Shuttle Program.

“Canadarm is the best-known example of the key role of Canada’s space exploration program,” said Maya Eyssen, a spokeperson for the CSA, via email. “Our robotic contribution to the shuttle program secured a mission spot for our nation’s first astronaut to fly to space –Marc Garneau. It also paved the way for Canada’s participation in the International Space Station.”

It’s successor, the Canadarm2, was mounted on the International Space Station in 2001, and has since been augmented with the addition of the Dextre robotic hand – also of Canadian design and manufacture. This arm, like its predecessor, has become a mainstay of operations aboard the ISS.

Over the past 15 years, Canadarm2 has played a critical role in assembling and maintaining the Station,” said Eyssen. “It was used on almost every Station assembly mission. Canadarm2  and Dextre are used to capture commercial space ships, unload their cargo and operate with millimeter precision in space. They are both featured on our $5 bank notes. The technology behind these robots also benefits those on earth through technological spin-offs used for neurosurgery, pediatric surgery and breast-cancer detection.”

Backdropped against a cloudy portion of Earth, Canada’s Dextre robotic "handyman" and Canadarm2 dig out the trunk of SpaceX’s Dragon cargo vessel docked to the ISS after completing a task 225 miles above the home planet. Credit: NASA
Canada’s Dextre robotic “handyman” and Canadarm2 pictured digging out the trunk of a SpaceX’s Dragon cargo vessel docked to the ISS. Credit: NASA

In terms of optics, the CSA is renowned for the creation of the Advanced Space Vision System (SVS) used aboard the ISS. This computer-vision system uses regular 2D cameras located in the Space Shuttle Bay, on the Canadarm, or on the hull of the ISS itself – along with cooperative targets – to calculate the 3D position of objects around of the station.

But arguably, Canada’s most enduring contribution to space exploration have come in the form of its astronauts. Long before Hadfield was garnering attention with his rousing rendition of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity“, or performing “Is Someone Singing (ISS)” with The Barenaked Ladies and The Wexford Gleeks choir (via a video connection from the ISS), Canadians were venturing into space as part of several NASA missions.

Consider Marc Garneau, a retired military officer and engineer who became the first Canadian astronaut to go into space, taking part in three flights aboard NASA Space shuttles in 1984, 1996 and 2000. Garneau also served as the president of the Canadian Space Agency from 2001 to 2006 before retiring for active service and beginning a career in politics.

And how about Roberta Bondar? As Canada’s first female astronaut, she had the additional honor of designated as the Payload Specialist for the first International Microgravity Laboratory Mission (IML-1) in 1992. Bondar also flew on the NASA Space Shuttle Discovery during Mission STS-42 in 1992, during which she performed experiments in the Spacelab.

The Soyuz TMA-15 crew (from left to right), showing Thirsk, Roman Romanenko, Frank De Winne. Credit: NASA/Victor Zelentsov
The Soyuz TMA-15 crew (from left to right), showing Robert Thirsk, Roman Romanenko, and Frank De Winne. Credit: NASA/Victor Zelentsov

And then there’s Robert Thirsk, an engineer and physician who holds the Canadian records for the longest space flight (187 days 20 hours) and the most time spent in space (204 days 18 hours). All three individuals embodied the unique combination of academic proficiency, advanced training, personal achievement, and dedication that make up an astronaut.

And just like Hadfield, Bonard, Garneau and Thirsk have all retired on gone on to have distinguished careers as chancellors of academic institutions, politicians, philanthropists, noted authors and keynote speakers. All told, eight Canadians astronauts have taken part in sixteen space missions and been deeply involved in research and experiments conducted aboard the ISS.

Alas, every generation has to retire sooner or later. And having made their contributions and moved onto other paths, the CSA is looking for two particularly bright, young, highly-motivated and highly-skilled people to step up and take their place.

The recruitment campaign was announced this past Sunday, July 17th, by the Honourable Navdeep Bains – the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development. Those who are selected will be based at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, where they will provide support for space missions in progress, and prepare for future missions.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian to serve as commander of the ISS. Credit: CTV
Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian to serve as commander of the ISS. Credit: CTV

Canadian astronauts also periodically return to Canada to participate in various activities and encourage young Canadians to pursue an education in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). As Eyssen explained, the goals of the recruitment drive is to maintain the best traditions of the Canadian space program as we move into the 21st century:

“The recruitment of new astronauts will allow Canada to maintain a robust astronaut corps and be ready to play a meaningful role in future human exploration initiatives. Canada is currently entitled to two long-duration astronaut flights to the ISS between now and 2024. The first one, scheduled for November 2018, will see David Saint-Jacques launch to space for a six-month mission aboard the ISS. The second flight will launch before 2024. As nations work together to chart the next major international space exploration missions, our continued role in the ISS will ensure that Canada is well-positioned to be a trusted partner in humanity’s next steps in space.

“Canada is seeking astronauts to advance critical science and research aboard the International Space Station and pave the way for human missions beyond the Station. Our international partners are exploring options beyond the ISS. This new generation of astronauts will be part of Canada’s next chapter of space exploration. That may include future deep-space exploration missions.”

The recruitment drive will be open from June 17th to August 15th, 2016, and the selected candidates are expected to be announced by next summer. This next class of Canadian astronaut candidates will start their training in August 2017 at the Johnson Space Center. The details can be found at the Canadian Space Agency‘s website, and all potential applicants are advised to read the campaign information kit before applying.

Alongside their efforts to find the next generation of astronauts, the Canadian government’s 2016 annual budget has also provided the CSA with up to $379 million dollars over the next eight years to extend Canada’s participation in the International Space Station on through to 2024. Gotta’ keep reaching for those stars, eh?

Further Reading: asc-csa.gc.ca

Cygnus Docks at Station for Christmas Delivery to Successfully Resume American Resupply Chain

@OrbitalATK’s #Cygnus spacecraft is moving toward its capture point at the International Space Station as astronaut maneuver the Canadian-built robotic arm to  reach out for dramatic vehicle grappling on Dec. 9, 2015. Credit: NASA TV
@OrbitalATK’s #Cygnus spacecraft is moving toward its capture point at the International Space Station as astronauts maneuver the Canadian-built robotic arm to reach out for dramatic vehicle grappling on Dec. 9, 2015. Credit: NASA TV
Story/photos updated

The commercial Cygnus cargo spaceship, loaded with over three tons of critically needed supplies and research experiments, successfully rendezvoused and docked with the International Space Station (ISS) this morning (Dec. 9) after blazing to orbit on Sunday, Dec. 6, and thereby successfully resumed the American resupply chain to orbit – just in time for Christmas in Space!

The Orbital ATK Cygnus CRS-4 resupply vessel arrived in the vicinity of the massive orbiting outpost around 530 a.m. EST today with pinpoint accuracy after precisely firing its maneuvering thrusters to home in on the complex during a two day orbital chase.

After moving close in to Continue reading “Cygnus Docks at Station for Christmas Delivery to Successfully Resume American Resupply Chain”

SpaceX Resets CRS-6 Space Station Launch to April 13 with Booster Landing Attempt

The clock is ticking towards the next launch of a SpaceX cargo vessel to the International Space Station (ISS) hauling critical supplies to the six astronauts and cosmonauts serving aboard, that now includes the first ever ‘One-Year Mission’ station crew comprising NASA’s Scott Kelly and Russia’s Mikhail Kornienko.

The mission, dubbed SpaceX CRS-6 (Commercial Resupply Services-6) will also feature the next daring attempt by SpaceX to recover the Falcon 9 booster rocket through a precision guided soft landing onto an ocean-going barge.

SpaceX and NASA are now targeting blastoff of the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft for Monday, April 13, just over a week from now, at approximately 4:33 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

NASA Television plans live launch coverage starting at 3:30 p.m.

The launch window is instantaneous, meaning that the rocket must liftoff at the precisely appointed time. Any delays due to weather or technical factors will force a scrub.

The backup launch day in case of a 24 hour scrub is Tuesday, April 14, at approximately 4:10 p.m.

Falcon 9 launches have been delayed due to issues with the rockets helium pressurization bottles that required investigation.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo ship are set to liftoff on a resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) from launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, Florida on Jan. 6, 2015. File photo.  Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo ship are set to liftoff on a resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) from launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, Florida. File photo. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The Falcon 9 first stage is outfitted with four landing legs and grid fins to enable the landing attempt, which is a secondary objective of SpaceX. Cargo delivery to the station is the overriding primary objective and the entire reason for the mission.

An on time launch on April 13 will result in the Dragon spacecraft rendezvousing with the Earth orbiting outpost Wednesday, April 15 after a two day orbital chase.

After SpaceX engineers on the ground maneuver the Dragon close enough to the station, European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti will use the station’s 57.7-foot-long (17-meter-long) robotic arm to reach out and capture Dragon at approximately 7:14 a.m. EDT on April 15.

Cristoforetti will be assisted by fellow Expedition 43 crew member and NASA astronaut Terry Virts, as they work inside the stations seven windowed domed cupola to berth Dragon at the Earth-facing port of the Harmony module.

SpaceX Dragon cargo ship approaches ISS, ready for grappling by astronauts. Credit: NASA
SpaceX Dragon cargo ship approaches ISS, ready for grappling by astronauts. Credit: NASA

Overall CRS-6 is the sixth SpaceX commercial resupply services mission and the seventh trip by a Dragon spacecraft to the station since 2012.

CRS-6 marks the company’s sixth operational resupply mission to the ISS under a $1.6 Billion contract with NASA to deliver 20,000 kg (44,000 pounds) of cargo to the station during a dozen Dragon cargo spacecraft flights through 2016 under NASA’s original Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.

Dragon is packed with more than 4,300 pounds (1915 kilograms) of scientific experiments, technology demonstrations, crew supplies, spare parts, food, water, clothing and assorted research gear for the six person Expedition 43 and 44 crews serving aboard the ISS.

The ship will remain berthed at the ISS for about five weeks.

The ISS cannot function without regular deliveries of fresh cargo by station partners from Earth.

The prior resupply mission, CRS-5, concluded in February with a successful Pacific Ocean splashdown and capsule recovery.

Introducing Landing Complex 1, formerly Launch Complex 13, at Cape Canaveral in Florida.  Credit: SpaceX
Introducing Landing Complex 1, formerly Launch Complex 13, at Cape Canaveral in Florida. Credit: SpaceX

The CRS-5 mission also featured SpaceX’s history making attempt at recovering the Falcon 9 first stage as a first of its kind experiment to accomplish a pinpoint soft landing of a rocket onto a tiny platform in the middle of a vast ocean using a rocket assisted descent.

As I wrote earlier at Universe Today, despite making a ‘hard landing’ on the vessel dubbed the ‘autonomous spaceport drone ship,’ the 14 story tall Falcon 9 first stage did make it to the drone ship, positioned some 200 miles offshore of the Florida-Carolina coast, northeast of the launch site in the Atlantic Ocean. The rocket broke into pieces upon hitting the barge.

Listen to my live radio interview with BBC 5LIVE conducted in January 2015, discussing SpaceX’s first attempt to land and return their Falcon-9 booster.

Watch for Ken’s onsite coverage of the CRS-6 launch from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

CATS Out of The Bag, Crawling Around ISS for Science Down Below

The Japanese robotic arm installs the CATS experiment on an external platform on Japan’s Kibo lab module. The SpaceX Dragon commercial cargo craft is seen at the right center of the image. Credit: NASA TV
See way cool installation video below[/caption]

“Robotic controllers let the CATS out of the bag!” So says NASA spokesman Dan Huot in a cool new NASA timelapse video showing in detail how CATS crawled around the space stations gangly exterior and clawed its way into its new home – topped off with a breathtaking view of our home planet that will deliver science benefits to us down below.

The CATS experiment was installed on the exterior of the International Space Station (ISS) via a first ever type of robotic handoff, whereby one of the stations robotic arms handed the rectangular shaped instrument off to a second robotic arm. Sort of like relays runners passing the baton while racing around the track for the gold medal.

In this case it was all in the name of science. CATS is short for Cloud Aerosol Transport System.

Ground controllers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston plucked CATS out of the truck of the recently arrived SpaceX Dragon cargo delivery vehicle with the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator (Dextre). Then they passed it off to a Japanese team of controllers at JAXA, manipulating the second arm known as the Japanese Experiment Module Remote Manipulator System. The JAXA team then installed CATS onto an external platform on Japans Kibo laboratory.

CATS is a new Earth Science instrument dedicated to collecting continuous data about clouds, volcanic ash plumes and tiny airborne particles that can help improve our understanding of aerosol and cloud interactions and improve the accuracy of climate change models.

The remote-sensing laser instrument measures clouds and the location and distribution of pollution, dust, smoke, and other particulates and aerosols in the atmosphere that directly impacts the global climate.

Data from CATS will be used to derive properties of cloud/aerosol layers at three wavelengths: 355, 532, 1064 nm.

Check out this cool NASA ‘Space to Ground’ video showing CATS installation

Video caption: NASA’s Space to Ground on 1/23/15 covers CATS Out of The Bag. This is your weekly update on what’s happening aboard the International Space Station. Got a question or comment? Use #spacetoground to talk to us.

All the movements were conducted overnight by robotic flight controllers on the ground. They installed CATS to an external platform on Japan’s Kibo lab module.

CATS is helping to open a new era on the space station research dedicated to expanding its use as a science platform for making extremely valuable remote sensing observations for Earth Science.

The CATS instrument is the fourth successful NASA Earth science launch out of five scheduled during a 12-month period. And it is the second to be installed on the exterior of the ISS, following ISS-RapidScat that was brought by the SpaceX CRS-4 Dragon.

The fifth launch — the Soil Moisture Active Passive satellite — is scheduled for Jan. 29 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

CATS was launched to the station as part of the payload aboard the SpaceX Dragon CRS-5 cargo vessel bolted atop the SpaceX Falcon 9 for the spectacular nighttime blastoff on Jan. 10 at 4:47 a.m. EST from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

CATS was loaded in the unpressurized rear trunk section of Dragon.

Kibo Laboratory The new CATS experiment delivered by the SpaceX commercial cargo craft will be installed on a platform outside Japan’s Kibo Laboratory module. Credit: NASA
Kibo Laboratory
The new CATS experiment delivered by the SpaceX commercial cargo craft will be installed on a platform outside Japan’s Kibo Laboratory module. Credit: NASA

The Dragon CRS-5 spacecraft was loaded with over 5108 pounds (2317 kg) of scientific experiments, technology demonstrations, the CATS science payload, student research investigations, crew supplies, spare parts, food, water, clothing and assorted research gear for the six person crew serving aboard the ISS.

It successfully rendezvoused at the station on Jan. 12 after a two day orbital chase, delivering the critical cargo required to keep the station stocked and humming with science.

Artist concept of CATS on ISS. Credit: NASA
Artist concept of CATS on ISS. Credit: NASA

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Cygnus Commercial Resupply Ship ‘Janice Voss’ Berths to Space Station on 45th Apollo 11 Anniversary

Following a nearly three day journey, an Orbital Sciences Corp. Cygnus commercial cargo freighter carrying a ton and a half of science experiments and supplies for the six person crew was successfully installed onto the International Space Station at 8:53 a.m. EDT this morning, July 16, after a flawless arrival and being firmly grasped by station astronauts deftly maneuvering the Canadarm2 robotic arm some two hours earlier.

Cygnus was captured in open space at 6:36 a.m. EDT by Commander Steve Swanson as he maneuvered the 57-foot (17-meter) Canadarm2 from a robotics workstation inside the station’s seven windowed domed Cupola, after it was delicately flown on an approach vector using GPS and LIDAR lasers to within about 32 feet (10 meters) of the massive orbiting complex.

Swanson was assisted by ESA astronaut and fellow Expedition 40 crew member Alexander Gerst working at a hardware control panel.

“Grapple confirmed” radioed Houston Mission Control as the complex soared in low orbit above Earth at 17500 MPH.

“Cygnus is captured as the ISS flew 260 miles (400 km) over northern Libya.”

Orbital Sciences' Cygnus cargo craft approaches the ISS on July 16, 2014 prior to Canadarm2  grappling and berthing.  Credit: NASA TV
Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus cargo craft approaches the ISS on July 16, 2014 prior to Canadarm2 grappling and berthing. Credit: NASA TV

Cygnus by the book arrival at the million pound orbiting laboratory coincided with the 45th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11 on July 16, 1969 on America’s first manned moon landing mission.

This mission dubbed Orbital-2, or Orb-2, marks the second of eight operational cargo resupply missions to the ISS under Orbital’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA.

The supplies are critical to keep the station flying and humming with research investigations.

Up-close side view of payload fairing protecting Cygnus cargo module during launch for Orb-2 mission to ISS. Vehicle undergoes prelaunch processing at NASA Wallops during visit by Universe Today/Ken Kremer.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Up-close side view of payload fairing protecting Cygnus cargo module during launch for Orb-2 mission to ISS. Vehicle undergoes prelaunch processing at NASA Wallops during visit by Universe Today/Ken Kremer. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The supply ship thrusters all worked perfectly normal during rendezvous and docking to station with streaming gorgeous views provided by the stations new high definition HDEV cameras.

“We now have a seventh crew member. Janice Voss is now part of Expedition 40,” radioed Swanson.

“Janice devoted her life to space and accomplished many wonderful things at NASA and Orbital Sciences, including five shuttle missions. And today, Janice’s legacy in space continues. Welcome aboard the ISS, Janice.”

The Cygnus spacecraft was christened “SS Janice Voss” in honor of Janice Voss who flew five shuttle missions during her prolific astronaut carrier, worked for both NASA and Orbital Sciences and passed away in February 2012.

Orbital Sciences' Cygnus cargo craft approaches the ISS on July 16, 2014 prior to Canadarm2  grappling and berthing.  Credit: NASA TV
Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus cargo craft approaches the ISS on July 16, 2014 prior to Canadarm2 grappling and berthing. Credit: NASA TV

A robotics officer at Mission Control in Houston then remotely commanded the arm to move Cygnus into place for its berthing at the Earth-facing port on the Harmony module.

Once Cygnus was in place at the ready to latch (RTF) position, NASA astronaut and Flight Engineer Reid Wiseman monitored the Common Berthing Mechanism operations and initiated the first and second stage capture of the cargo ship to insure the craft was firmly joined.

The hard mate was completed at 8:53 a.m. EDT as the complex was flying about 260 miles over the east coast of Australia. 16 bolts were driven to firmly hold Cygnus in place to the station.

“Cygnus is now bolted to the ISS while flying 260 miles about the continent of Australia,” confirmed Houston Mission Control.

Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft blasts off on July 13  2014 from Launch Pad 0A at NASA Wallops Flight Facility , VA, on the Orb-2 mission and loaded with over 3000 pounds of science experiments and supplies for the crew aboard the International Space Station.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft blasts off on July 13, 2014 from Launch Pad 0A at NASA Wallops Flight Facility , VA, on the Orb-2 mission and loaded with over 3000 pounds of science experiments and supplies for the crew aboard the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Cygnus roared to orbit during a spectacular blastoff on July 13 atop an Orbital Sciences Corp. Antares rocket on the Orb-2 mission at 12:52 p.m. (EDT) from the beachside Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

The US/Italian built pressurized Cygnus cargo freighter delivered 1,657 kg (3653 lbs) of cargo to the ISS Expedition 40 crew including over 700 pounds (300 kg) of science experiments and instruments, crew supplies, food, water, computer equipment, spacewalk tools and student research experiments.

Student Space Flight teams at NASA Wallops.  Science experiments from these students representing 15 middle and high schools across  America were selected to fly aboard the Orbital Sciences Cygnus Orb-2 spacecraft which launched to the ISS from NASA Wallops, VA, on July 13, 2014, as part of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP).  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Student Space Flight teams at NASA Wallops
Science experiments from these students representing 15 middle and high schools across America were selected to fly aboard the Orbital Sciences Cygnus Orb-2 spacecraft which launched to the ISS from NASA Wallops, VA, on July 13, 2014, as part of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP). Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The crew will begin work today to remove the Centerline Berthing Camera System that provided the teams with a view of berthing operations through the hatch window.

Swanson will then pressurize and outfit the vestibule area between Harmony and Cygnus. After conducting leak checks they will open the hatch to Cygnus either later today or tomorrow and begin the unloading process, including retrieving a stash of highly desired fresh food.

The wide ranging science cargo and experiments includes a flock of 28 Earth imaging nanosatellites and deployers, student science experiments and small cubesat prototypes that may one day fly to Mars.

“Every flight is critical,” said Frank Culbertson, Orbital’s executive vice president of the advanced programs group, at a post launch briefing at NASA Wallops. Culbertson was a NASA shuttle commander and also flew aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

“We carry a variety of types of cargo on-board, which includes food and basic supplies for the crew, and also the research.”

The cargo mission was crucial since the crew supply margin would have turned uncomfortably narrow by the Fall of 2014.

Cygnus will remain attached to the station approximately 30 days until August 15.

For the destructive and fiery return to Earth, the crew will load Cygnus with approximately 1,340 kg (2950 lbs) of trash for disposal upon atmospheric reentry over the Pacific Ocean approximately five days later after undocking.

The Orb-2 launch was postponed about a month from June 9 to conduct a thorough re-inspection of the two Russian built and US modified Aerojet AJ26 engines that power the rocket’s first stage after a test failure of a different engine on May 22 at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi resulted in extensive damage.

The July 13 liftoff marked the fourth successful launch of the 132 foot tall Antares in the past 15 months, Culbertson noted.

The first Antares was launched from NASA Wallops in April 2013. And the Orb-2 mission also marks the third deployment of Cygnus in less than a year.

Orbital Sciences was awarded a $1.9 Billion supply contract by NASA to deliver 20,000 kilograms (44,000 pounds) of research experiments, crew provisions, spare parts and hardware for 8 flights to the ISS through 2016 under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) initiative.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing ISS, OCO-2, GPM, Curiosity, Opportunity, Orion, SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital Sciences, MAVEN, MOM, Mars and more Earth & Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Space Robot Fixes Itself, Takes Selfie As Funny Livetweet Happens On The Ground

In a thrilling demonstration of space robotics, today the Dextre “hand” replaced a malfunctioning camera on the station’s Canadarm2 robotic arm. And the Canadian Space Agency gleefully tweeted every step of the way, throwing in jokes to describe what was happening above our heads on the International Space Station.

“Dextre’s job is to reduce the risk to astronauts by relieving them of routine chores, freeing their time for science,” the Canadian Space Agency tweeted today (May 27) .

“Spacewalks are thrilling, inspiring, but can potentially be dangerous. They also take a lot of resources and time. So Dextre is riding the end of Canadarm2 today instead of an astronaut. And our inner child is still yelling out ‘Weeeee…!’ ”

The complex maneuvers actually took a few days to accomplish, as the robot removed the broken camera last week and stowed it. Today’s work (performed by ground controllers) was focused on putting in the new camera and starting to test it. You can see some of the most memorable tweets of the day below.

The cookie you see in the first tweet is part of a tradition in Canada’s robotic mission control near Montreal, Que., where controllers have this snack on the day when they are doing robotic work in space.

Incidentally, the Canadian Space Agency bet NASA a box of maple cream cookies in February during a gold-medal Olympic hockey game between the two countries, which Canada won.

Return of the SpaceX-3 Dragon to Earth Caps Super Science Mission for NASA

SpaceX-3 Dragon commercial cargo freighter was detached from the ISS at 8 AM EDT on May 18, 2014 and released by station crew at 9:26 AM for splashdown in the Pacific Ocean with science samples and cargo. Credit: NASA
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The 30 day flight of the SpaceX-3 Dragon commercial cargo freighter loaded with a huge cache of precious NASA science experiments including a freezer packed with research samples ended today with a spectacular departure from the orbiting lab complex soaring some 266 miles (428 km) above Earth.

Update 3:05 PM EDT May 18: SpaceX confirms successful splashdown at 3:05 p.m. EDT today.

“Splashdown is confirmed!! Welcome home, Dragon!”

Robotics officers at Mission Control at NASA’s Johnson Space Center detached Dragon from the Earth-facing port of the Harmony module at 8 a.m. EDT (1300 GMT) this morning, Sunday, May 18, 2014 using the stations Canadian-built robotic arm.

Engineers had earlier unbolted all 16 hooks and latches firmly connecting the vehicle to the station in preparation.

NASA astronaut Steve Swanson then commanded the gum dropped shaped Dragon capsule’s release from Canadarm2 as planned at 9:26 a.m. EDT (1326 GMT) while the pair were flying majestically over southern Australia.

The undocking operation was shown live on NASA TV.

The SpaceX Dragon commercial cargo craft was in the grips of the Canadarm2 before being released for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.  Credit: NASA
The SpaceX Dragon commercial cargo craft was in the grips of the Canadarm2 before being released for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. Credit: NASA

Swanson was assisted by Russian cosmonaut Alexander Skvortsov as the US- Russian team were working together inside the domed Cupola module.

Following the cargo ships release by the 57 foot long arms grappling snares, Swanson carefully maneuvered the arm back and away from Dragon as it moved ever so slowly in free drift mode.

It was already four feet distant within three minutes of release.

Three departure burns by the Dragon’s Draco maneuvering thrusters followed quickly in succession and occurred precisely on time at 9:29, 9:30 and 9:38 a.m. EST.

Dragon exited the 200 meter wide keep out zone – an imaginary bubble around the station with highly restricted access – at the conclusion of the 3rd departure burn.

“The Dragon mission went very well. It was very nice to have a vehicle take science equipment to the station, and maybe some day even humans,” Swanson radioed after the safe and successful departure was completed.

“Thanks to everyone who worked on the Dragon mission.”

The private SpaceX Dragon spent a total of 28 days attached to the ISS.

The six person international crew from Russia, the US and Japan on Expeditions 39 and 40 unloaded some 2.5 tons of supplies aboard and then repacked it for the voyage home.

The SpaceX resupply capsule is carrying back about 3500 pounds of spacewalk equipment, vehicle hardware, science samples from human research, biology and biotechnology studies, physical science investigations and education activities, as well as no longer needed trash.

“The space station is our springboard to deep space and the science samples returned to Earth are critical to improving our knowledge of how space affects humans who live and work there for long durations,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for human exploration and operations.

“Now that Dragon has returned, scientists can complete their analyses, so we can see how results may impact future human space exploration or provide direct benefits to people on Earth.”

Among the research investigations conducted that returned samples in the cargo hold were an examination of the decreased effectives of antibiotics in space, better growth of plants in space, T-Cell activation in aging and causes of human immune system depression in the microgravity environment.

The 10 minute long deorbit burn took place as scheduled at 2:10 p.m. EDT (1810 GMT) today.

Dragon returned to Earth for a triple parachute assisted splash down today at around 3:02 p.m. EDT (19:02 GMT) in the Pacific Ocean – some 300 miles west of Baja California.

Dragon is free flying after release from ISS at 9:26 a.m. EDT on May 18, 2014. Credit: NASA
Dragon is free flying after release from ISS at 9:26 a.m. EDT on May 18, 2014. Credit: NASA

It will be retrieved by recovery boats commissioned by SpaceX. The science cargo will be extracted and then delivered to NASA’s Johnson Space Center within 48 hours.

Dragon thundered to orbit atop SpaceX’s powerful new Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket on April 18, from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

This unmanned Dragon delivered about 4600 pounds of cargo to the ISS including over 150 science experiments, a pair of hi tech legs for Robonaut 2, a high definition Earth observing imaging camera suite (HDEV), the laser optical communications experiment (OPALS), the VEGGIE lettuce growing experiment as well as essential gear, spare parts, crew provisions, food, clothing and supplies to the six person crews living and working aboard in low Earth orbit.

Robonaut 2 engineering model equipped with new legs like those heading to the ISS on upcoming SpaceX CRS-3 launch were on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex on March 15, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Robonaut 2 engineering model equipped with new legs like those delivered to the ISS on the SpaceX CRS-3 launch were on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex on March 15, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

It reached the ISS on April 20 for berthing.

Dragon is the only unmanned resupply vessel supply that also returns cargo back to Earth.

The SpaceX-3 mission marks the company’s third resupply mission to the ISS under the $1.6 Billion Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA to deliver 20,000 kg (44,000 pounds) of cargo to the ISS during a dozen Dragon cargo spacecraft flights through 2016.

The SpaceX Dragon is among a trio of American vehicles, including the Boeing CST-100 and Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser vying to restore America’s capability to fly humans to Earth orbit and the space station by late 2017, using seed money from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) in a public/private partnership. The next round of contracts will be awarded by NASA about late summer 2014.

Another significant milestone was the apparently successful attempt by SpaceX to accomplish a controlled soft landing of the Falcon 9 boosters first stage in the Atlantic Ocean for eventual recovery and reuse. It was a first step in a guided 1st stage soft landing back at the Cape.

The next unmanned US cargo mission to the ISS is set for early morning on June 10 with the launch of the Orbital Sciences Cygnus freighter atop an Antares booster from a launch pad at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on the eastern shore of Virginia.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, Boeing, commercial space, Orion, Chang’e-3, LADEE, Curiosity, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

………

Ken’s upcoming presentation: Mercy College, NY, May 19: “Curiosity and the Search for Life on Mars” and “NASA’s Future Crewed Spaceships.”

Dangling Dextre Digs out Docked Dragon Depot prior to Station Departure

To close out their final week aboard the International Space Station, three of the six Expedition 39 crew members are completing their unloading tasks inside the docked commercial SpaceX Dragon cargo freighter and other duties while teams at Mission Control in Houston conduct delicate robotics work outside with dazzling maneuvers of the Dextre robot to remove the last external experiment from the vessels storage truck.

See a dazzling gallery of photos of Dextre dangling outside the docked Dragon depot – above and below.

On Monday, May 5, the robotics team at NASA Mission Control Center at the Johnson Space Center in Houston carefully guided Canada’s Dextre robotic “handyman” attached to the end of the 57-foot long Canadarm2 to basically dig out the final payload item housed in the unpressurized trunk section at the rear of the SpaceX Dragon cargo vessel docked to the ISS.

Dextre stands for “Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator” and was contributed to the station by the Canadian Space Agency. It measures 12 feet tall and is outfitted with a pair of arms and an array of finely detailed tools to carry out intricate and complex tasks that would otherwise require spacewalking astronauts.

The Canadarm2 with Dextre in its grasp conducts external cargo transfers from the SpaceX Dragon resupply ship.  Credit: NASA TV
The Canadarm2 with Dextre in its grasp conducts external cargo transfers from the SpaceX Dragon resupply ship. Credit: NASA TV

The massive orbiting outpost was soaring some 225 miles above the home planet as Dextre’s work was in progress to remove the Optical PAyload for Lasercomm Science, or OPALS, from the Dragon’s truck.

The next step is to install OPALS on the Express Logistics Carrier-1 (ELC-1) depot at the end of the station’s port truss on Wednesday.

Monday’s attempt was the second try at grappling OPALS. The initial attempt last Thursday “was unsuccessful due to a problem gripping the payload’s grapple fixture with the Special Purpose Dextrous Manipulator, or Dextre,” NASA reported.

A software patch solved the problem.

Canada’s Dextre manipulator attached to Canadarm2 conducts external cargo transfers from the SpaceX Dragon resupply ship.  Credit: NASA TV
Canada’s Dextre manipulator attached to Canadarm2 conducts external cargo transfers from the SpaceX Dragon resupply ship. Credit: NASA TV

Dragon thundered to orbit atop SpaceX’s powerful new Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket on April 18, from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

This unmanned Dragon delivered about 4600 pounds of cargo to the ISS including over 150 science experiments, a pair of hi tech legs for Robonaut 2, a high definition Earth observing imaging camera suite (HDEV), the laser optical communications experiment (OPALS), the VEGGIE lettuce growing experiment as well as essential gear, spare parts, crew provisions, food, clothing and supplies to the six person crews living and working aboard in low Earth orbit, under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.

OPALS uses laser light instead of radio waves to beam back precisely guided data packages to ground stations. The use of lasers should greatly increase the amount of information transmitted over the same period of time, says NASA.

The science experiments carried aboard Dragon are intended for research to be conducted by the crews of ISS Expeditions 39 and 40.

Robotics teams had already pulled out the other payload item from the truck, namely the HDEV imaging suite. It is already transmitting back breathtaking real time video views of Earth from a quartet of video cameras pointing in different directions mounted on the stations exterior.

The SpaceX CRS-3 mission marks the company’s third resupply mission to the ISS under a $1.6 Billion contract with NASA to deliver 20,000 kg (44,000 pounds) of cargo to the ISS during a dozen Dragon cargo spacecraft flights through 2016.

After spending six months in space, Station Commander Koichi Wakata from Japan as well as NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin will be departing the station in a week aboard their Soyuz TMA-11M spacecraft on May 13 at 6:33 p.m. EDT.

They are scheduled to land some 3.5 hours later in the steppes of Kazakhstan at 9:57 p.m. (7:57 a.m. Kazakh time on May 14). The events will be carried live on NASA TV.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon resupply ship launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 18, 2014.   Credit:  Jeff Seibert/Wired4Space
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon resupply ship launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 18, 2014. Credit: Jeff Seibert/Wired4Space
To prepare for the journey home, the trio also completed fit checks on their Russian Sokol launch and entry suits on Monday.

Meanwhile Dragon is also set to depart the station soon on May 18 for a parachute assisted splashdown and recovery by boats in the Pacific Ocean west of Baja California.

Dragon has been docked to the station since arriving on Easter Sunday morning, April 20.

It was grappled using Canadarm 2 and berthed at the Earth facing port of the Harmony module by Commander Wakata and flight engineer Mastracchio while working at the robotics work station inside the seven windowed domed Cupola module.

For the return trip, the Expedition 39 crew is also loading Dragon with precious science samples collected over many months from the crews research activities as well as trash and no longer needed items.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, Orion, Chang’e-3, LADEE, Curiosity, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer