Ultimate ISS + Shuttle + Earth Photo Op Coming on May 23 from Soyuz and Paolo Nespoli


KENNEDY SPACE CENTER: Get ready for the ultimate photo op in space – set for the International Space Station joined to Space Shuttle Endeavour and topped off by Planet Earth as the backdrop.

And it’s coming up momentarily because of an unexpected and “unique opportunity” that’s also taking place at nearly the last possible moment in the life of the soon to be retired Space Shuttle program.

On Monday, May 23, Italian Astronaut Paolo Nespoli will snap the first ever photos and video of a US Space Shuttle orbiter while it is simultaneously still docked to the International Space Station, NASA officials just announced on Friday, May 19.

Video Caption: This computer generated animation depicts the view the Soyuz crew will see as they depart from the International Space Station (upper left) on May 23, 2011 at 5:32 p.m. EDT. Italian Astronaut Paolo Nespoli will capture an incredible and first ever imagery of the stacked station/shuttle complex with a space shuttle orbiter; the Endeavour. Bottom view shows side view of the Soyuz departing the ISS. Credit: NASA

Nespoli will capture the dramatic and historic imagery – in a newly devised plan – while he is departing the “Shuttle- Station stack” aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft and heading for a landing back on Earth with two crewmates barely 4 hours later in Kazakhstan.

“We have a unique opportunity. We are calling this Soyuz undock with imagery,” said Kenneth Todd, chair of NASA’s space station mission management team. “We are not calling this a Soyuz flyaround or flyabout.”

“This is going to be a great opportunity for the spaceflight community.”

After months of high level international negotiations since the STS-133 mission, NASA and Russian space officials from the space shuttle and space station teams have finally agreed on a arrangement for utilizing a crewed Soyuz vehicle to record the first ever photos showing a shuttle while still docked to the massive orbiting outpost in the same field of view.

The chance to do the shuttle- station photo documentation in this way only became possible when the launch of Space Shuttle Endeavour was scrubbed on April 29 and the resulting delayed launch of the STS-134 mission on May 16 fortuitously afforded an overlapping time period that coincided with the Soyuz TMA-20 crew departure.

Space Shuttle Endeavour launches from Pad 39 A on May 16, 2011 on the STS-134 mission.
View from the countdown clock at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Endeavour has delivered the $2 Billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the International Space Station. The AMS will search for dark matter, dark energy and antimatter to determine the origin and evolution of the Universe. Credit: Ken Kremer

The photo opportunity will take place under what’s called a dual docked operations scenario whereby the Soyuz is undocked while a shuttle is still attached to the ISS.

“With 100 percent consensus, we approved this change to the baseline mission to go add this photo documentation task as part of the Soyuz TMA-20 undock,” Todd explained.

In order to accommodate the extra time required to accomplish the photo shoot, the Soyuz TMA-20 capsule will undock from the ISS one orbit earlier than originally scheduled, about 90 minutes, at 5:32 p.m. EDT.

Space Shuttle Atlantis docked to Russian Mir Space Station
on 29 June 1995.
Check out this perspective of what a space shuttle looks like when docked to an Earth orbiting space station. Atlantis is docked to the Mir Space Station on 29 June 1995 during the STS-71 mission. The shuttle has never before been photographed while attached to the Internalional Space Station. The photos of the Shuttle Endeavou and ISS Space Station stack are expected on May 23, 2010. Credit: Roscosmos

Nespoli is departing with ISS Expedition 27 commander and Russian cosmonaut Dimitry Kondratyev and NASA astronaut Catherine “Cady” Coleman. They will be completing a nearly six month stint in space aboard the ISS.”

“After the Soyuz undocks, they will back out to about 200 meters,” explained Courtney McMillan, STS-134 Station Team 4 Flight Director. “You will see they are a little bit above the velocity vector, above the station, and that is to keep the sun out of the pilot’s eyes.”

“After they get to the station keeping point, ISS will begin to maneuver, turning 130 degrees at 0.2 degrees per second.” The attitude was designed to provide the best perspective of the ISS and Endeavour.

“It will take 15 minutes to bring the whole stack around to get a side view and a really good view of Endeavour. This is an unusual attitude for the station to fly during a mated mission and people have done a lot of work to make sure this is a good thing to be doing. They have scrutinized the issue and are very comfortable with the plan.”

The station move will be done using thrusters on the Russian Segment service module – named Zvezda – and the thrusters on the docked Progress 42P vehicle, an unmanned Russian cargo ship. See diagram below.

Nespoli will have to float into the Soyuz vehicles forward habitation module – from his seat in the central descent module – and then snap the photo and video imagery through the modules windows. He will have a direct line of sight to the stack.

Paolo will have roughly 30 minutes time to collect all the imagery of the combined space complex during the photo survey, starting at about 5:50 p.m. EDT.

Then he will float back out of the habitation module, carefully seal the hatches in between and take his seat in the descent module.

The habitation module burns up in Earth orbit after the modules separate in preparation for the Soyuz’s deorbit and scorching reentry into Earth’s atmosphere.

Since the Soyuz will be pitched up during the undocking sequence, breathtaking views of Earth in the background of the “Shuttle-
Station stack” are expected.

The goal is to get good archival imagery of the space station stack with the shuttle attached. In addition to the gee whiz factor there are good reasons from an engineering perspective to record this imagery to assess the condition of the orbiting complex, NASA managers said.

“Future generations will look back on their history and look back at what we accomplished between these two very, very large programs – the shuttle and the space station – and realize it was amazing what we accomplished with the technology available at the time.”

“These pictures will be in textbooks to show what we did”, said Todd.

Exactly when the digital photos and video will be available for all to see is still to be determined. NASA and Russian space officials are discussing the details of when and how to distribute the imagery. The Soyuz is not equipped to transmit the imagery in real time.

“We hope to start seeing the photos and videos within a day of landing”, said Todd.

Paolo has snapped many gorgeous shots during his stay in space, including these of an Ariane V launching the European ATV cargo craft from French Guiana.

Go Paolo !

Read my story about the Final Shuttle mission, STS-135, here:
Atlantis Rolls to Vehicle Assembly Building with Final Space Shuttle Crew for July 8 Blastoff

Read my related stories about the STS-134 mission here:
Endeavour Blasts Off on Her 25th and Final Mission
Endeavour Unveiled for Historic Final Blastoff
Looking to the Heavens with Endeavour; Launch Pad Photo Special
Endeavour Astronauts Arrive at Cape for May 16 Launch
NASA Sets May 16 for Last Launch of Endeavour; Atlantis Slips to July
Endeavour’s Final Launch further delayed another Week or more
On the Cusp of Endeavour’s Final Flight
Brush Fires Erupt at Kennedy Space Center during Endeavour’s Last Countdown
Commander Mark Kelly and STS-134 Crew Arrive at Kennedy for Endeavour’s Final Flight
President Obama to Attend Endeavour’s Last Launch on April 29
Shuttle Endeavour Photo Special: On Top of Pad 39A for Final Flight
Endeavour Mated to Rockets for Last Flight Photo Album
Endeavour Rolls to Vehicle Assembly Building for Final Flight

Diagram of Russian Zvezda Service Module

Commander Mark Kelly and STS-134 Crew Arrive at Kennedy for Endeavour’s Final Flight


KENNEDY SPACE CENTER – The six man crew for Shuttle Endeavour’s final flight to space arrived today (April 26) at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The crew flew in to the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) on a quartet of T-38 jets from their training base in Houston.

Shuttle Commander Mark Kelly introduced his crew to a large crowd of gathered reporters, photographers and NASA officials including Launch Director Mike Leinbach, KSC Director Bob Cabana and Kelly’s twin brother Scott who recently returned from a six month stint aboard the International Space Station.

Shuttle Commander Mark Kelly addresses the media at the shuttle landing strip after crew arrival on April 26. From left: Mission Specialists Greg Chamitoff, Andrew Feustel, Commander Mark Kelly, Pilot Greg H. Johnson. T-38 jet in the background. Credit: Ken Kremer

Speaking on behalf of the entire crew he said, “We’re really happy to be here today,” said Kelly. “We got a chance to take look at the orbiter as we first flew over the field and then the over pad. It’s great to see Endeavour all ready to go again.”

Kelly was exuberant in saying that his wife, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, was well enough to attend the STS-134 launch set for Friday, at 3:47 p.m. EDT.

The shuttle launch countdown officially commenced at 2 PM today. The weather outlook is 80% GO, with a 20% chance of weather violations prohibiting launch according to Shuttle weather officer Kathy Winters.

STS-134 crew arrives at KSC aboard T-38 jets. Credit : Alan Walters, awaltersphoto.com

STS-134 is the 25th and final launch of Space Shuttle Endeavour.

The primary payload aboard Endeavour is the $2 Billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) ) which the crew will attach to the International Space Station. The AMS will collect cosmic rays, search for dark energy, dark matter and anti matter and seeks to determine the origin of the Universe.

Photos from the Universe Today team of Alan Walters, Ken Kremer and Michael Deep. Check back later for more photos

STS 134 crew pose for photographers at Shuttle Landing Facility on April 26. Launch is set for April 29. Mission Specialists Greg Chamitoff, Andrew Feustel, Commander Mark Kelly, Pilot Greg H. Johnson, Mission Specialist Mike Fincke and European Space Agency astronaut Roberto Vittori. Credit: Ken Kremer
STS-134 commander Mark Kelly strides across the runway of the Shuttle Landing Facility. Credit: Michael Deep, for Universe Today.
Astronauts Mark Kelly and Mike Fincke land in their T-38 at Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Michael Deep, for Universe Today.

A Varying Venusian Vortex

Animation of Venus' southern polar vortex made from VIRTIS thermal infrared images; white is cooler clouds at higher altitudes.

Our neighboring planet Venus really is a world of extremes; searing surface temperatures, crushing air pressure, sulfuric acid clouds…Venus pretty much pushes the envelope on every aspect of rocky-planet existence. And now here’s one more thing that made scientists do a double-take: a shape-shifting vortex swirling around Venus’ south pole!

The presence of a cyclonic storm around Venus’ poles – both north and south –  has been known since Mariner 10’s pass in 1974 and then afterwards during the Pioneer Venus mission when a downwardly-spiraling formation of clouds over the planet’s north pole was imaged in infrared. It wasn’t until ESA’s Venus Express orbiter arrived in 2006 that the cyclone at the south pole was directly observed via the Visible and Infrared Thermal Imaging Spectrometer (VIRTIS) instrument…and it proved to be much stranger than anything previously expected. Continue reading “A Varying Venusian Vortex”

45 Years of Rendezvous and Docking in Space

On Thursday, the European ATV Johannes Kepler will dock with the International Space Station. Rendezvous and docking in space has been taking place for 45 years, and happened first when Gemini 8 hooked up with the Agena Target Vehicle in 1966. Most of us take for granted how two spacecraft rendezvous while in orbit, but it is a complicated procedure involving orbital mechanics, coordination between the two spacecraft, and strict timelines. Here’s a 90-second whirlwind tour of the history of docking in space – past, present and future from ESA. If you want to read more about the history rendezvous and docking, ESA’s ATV blog has a detailed look. Below is a video that describes how the ATV docks at the ISS.

Continue reading “45 Years of Rendezvous and Docking in Space”

Spectacular ATV Kepler Launch Photo Captured from Orbiting ISS


Have you ever seen a space launch from orbit ?

Check out the spectacular launch photo (above) of the Johannes Kepler ATV streaking skyward atop an Ariane 5 rocket as captured by astronaut Paolo Nespoli from his unparalleled vantage point looking out the windows aboard the International Space Station (ISS), in orbit some 350 km above Earth.

The launch photo shows the rising exhaust trail from the rocket just minutes after blast off of the Ariane booster on Feb. 16 from the ESA rocket base in Kourou, French Guiana, South America. The rocket was still on a vertical ascent trajectory to orbit. Additional launch photos below from space and Earth.

Photo captured on 16 February 2011 from the real-time video from the Ariane 5 launcher during the flight V200 during the time of jettisoning the boosters.

The photo vividly illustrates the maturity of the European space effort since the launch base, Ariane booster rocket, Kepler payload and astronaut Nespoli all stem from Europe and are crucial to the future life of the ISS.

Ariane 5 rocket at the Launch pad at Europe's Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana with Johannes Kepler ATV bolted on top prior to Feb. 16 blast off.

Kepler is set to dock at the ISS on Feb. 24 and an on time arrival is essential because of an impending orbital traffic jam.

Space Shuttle Discovery is due to link up with the ISS just six hous after Kepler if the orbiter launches according to schedule on Feb. 22.

Everything is nominal with Kepler’s spacecraft systems and orbital performance at this time say European Space Agency (ESA) officials, including the deployment of ATV’s four large solar wings.

Ariane 5 liftoff with Johannes Kepler ATV

The ATV, or Automated Transfer Vehicle, is a European built resupply vessel designed to transport essential cargo and provisions to the ISS. It is Europe’s contribution to stocking up the ISS.

Kepler is carrying carries more than seven metric tons of supplies and cargo for the ISS and will be used to reboost the outpost to a higher orbit during its planned four month mission.

“ATV is a truly European spacecraft. Flying it requires experts from ESA, partner agencies and industry across half a dozen countries,” said ESA’s Bob Chesson, Head of the Human Spaceflight Operations Department.

“Getting it built, into orbit and operating it in flight to docking requires a lot of hard work and dedication from hundreds of people.”

The ATV is named after Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), the German astronomer and mathematician who is best known for discovering the laws of planetary motion. NASA also named its powerful new planet hunting space telescope after Kepler, which recently discovered the first earth sized planets orbiting inside the habitable zone.

After the shuttle is forcibly retired later this year in 2011, the very survival and continued use of the ISS will be completely dependent on a steady train of cargo and payloads lofted by unmanned resupply vessels including the ATV from Europe, HTV from Japan, Progress from Russia and commercial carriers such as SpaceX and Orbital Sciences.

Photos of Ariane rockets rising exhaust trail from Feb. 16 ATV launch photographed from the ISS. Credits: ESA/ NASA

European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Paolo Nespoli, Expedition 26 flight engineer, conducts a test run with the French/CNES neuroscientific research experiment 3D-Space (SAP) in the Columbus laboratory of the International Space Station.

ATV Successfully Launches to Space Station

Here’s a chance to practice your French countdown skills: watch today’s successful launch of the European Space Agency’s Automated Transfer Vehicle “Johannes” on a Arianespace Ariane 5 rocket blasted off on Feb. 16, 2011, carrying the “Johannes Kepler” cargo-carrying vehicle to the International Space Station. It will take eight days for the ATV to arrive and dock to the aft end of the International Space Station’s Zvezda Service Module. This is the second of ESA’s resupply vehicles, and is loaded with about seven tons of supplies and propellant for use by the six crew members on the ISS.

After yesterday’s scrub of Johannes Kepler, NASA had said that a launch of the ATV today (Wednesday) might delay the launch of space shuttle Discovery for STS-133. However, today, NASA said that might not be the case. Officials will decide Discovery’s launch date at the Flight Readiness Review on February 18. Currently, STS-133’s launch is scheduled for Feb. 24.

New Looks at Phobos from Mars Express Flyby


The Mars Express team released the images today from the close flyby the spacecraft made of Phobos on January 9. The images weren’t downloaded from Mars Express until Jan. 18, and then they were processed, so these are hot off the press. The team didn’t provide much explanation, but enjoy the images. There’s one 3-D view in the group, so grab your 3-D glasses.

Another view of Phobos from Mars Express. Credits: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)
A sequence of images from 5 different channels on the high resolution camera on Mars Express. Credits: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum
3-D view of Phobos from Jan. 9, 2011. Credits: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

Here’s the on 3-D view, and the team explained that due to the stereo viewing geometry during the flyby a small part of the moon’s edge is only visible for the right eye resulting in odd 3D-perception in this area. This part has been slightly adjusted for better viewing. Also, for the left eye at the left edge of the image four small data gaps have been interpolated.

Image of Phobos with a resolution of 8.2 m/pixel in orbit 8974. The ellipses marked the previously planned (red) and currently considered (blue) landing sites for the Russian Phobos-Grunt mission. Credits: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

Source: ESA

Spectacular Eruptions of Mt. Etna in Sicily from Space and Earth


Spectacular eruptions from Mt Etna are spewing massive quantities of lava, smoke and ash many hundreds of meters high into the skies above the island of Sicily. Mt Etna is the most active volcano in Europe and one of the most active on all of Earth. The volcano rumbled to life again this week on the evening of January 12, 2011 and lit up the night sky. Mt Etna is 3350 meters high and located on the northeast coast of Sicily near the boot of Italy (see above, below).

Updated: comment or send me your Etna erupting photos/accounts to post below.
This fearsome natural wonder is providing an awe inspiring show from both Earth and Space. Local residents and lucky tourists nearby took stunning videos and photos (below) showing fountains of brilliant lava eruptions streaming mightily from the volcano.

This Envisat MERIS image, acquired on 11 January 2011, shows the plume of smoke billowing into the atmosphere from Mount Etna, Sicily, Italy. Activity gradually increased the following day, peaking in the evening. Credits: ESA
Click to Enlarge all images

Amazing photos from space were captured by Earth orbiting satellites from NASA and ESA. NASA’s Terra satellite took the above image on Jan. 11 as Mt Etna was spewing forth smoke or ash just prior to the volcanic eruptions on Jan. 12. The photo of Etna is NASA’s Earth Observatory Image of the Day, today, Jan. 15, 2011.

ESA’s Envisat likewise snapped a gorgeous view of the billowing plume of smoke rising to space (photo at left) and the international crew aboard the ISS, which currently includes Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli. Perhaps he’ll send us a shot !

Local news and eyewitness accounts say that tremors from the volcano began increasing on Jan. 11. Emissions of volcanic gases and water vapor have been ongoing since late September 2010. The sounds of explosive tremors from deep inside were also detected months ago.

This sizzling hot video – “Etna at Maximum Activity” – is set to music and records the magnificent flowing streams of lava and the thunderous sounds of the crackling, explosive eruptions. Be sure to view at full screen, then just sit back and enjoy !

Plumes of volcanic ash from the eruptions spread across Sicily and forced the closure of the local Fontanarossa airport – nearby to the city of Catania, which is 24 kilometers away.

Rumblings of Mt Etna have been recorded in historical documents dating back to about 1500 BC.

Another short, dramatic video with the raw sounds of the eruption from a group of German tourists visiting the beautiful city of Taormina, Sicily

Eyewitness Description:
“Mount Etna erupted in the evening of January 12, 2011 for around four hours, providing an amazing scenery. We shot this unique video from Taormina on January 12, 2011 at 11.45 p.m. and uploaded it on YouTube.

On the evening of 11th January 2011 an increase in volcanic tremor was recorded at the summit of the volcano. The recorded seismic activity reached a peak at 7 a.m. on 12th January when the source moved from north of NE crater to the SE crater. The eruption started with strombolian explosive activity at SE crater at around 9.p.m. Lava overflowed the eastern rim of SE crater and fed a flow that moved toward the western wall of the Valle del Bove (Valley of the oxen), an ancient huge uninhabited depression on the NE side of the volcano.

The Sicilian communities near the volcano were not threatened by this latest fascinating eruption. Best place to watch the fascinating eruptions of Mount Etna is the town of Taormina, nestled on a hill at 220 meters / 722 feet above the sea level and at a safe linear distance of approx. 28 Km / 17,4 miles from the top craters of the Sicilian volcano.”

Fearsome lava eruptions spewing from Mt Etna on Jan. 11, 2011

A few years back, I visited Mt Etna and was incredibly lucky to witness this spectacle of nature myself. It was an unforgettable experience to see the glowing red-orange colored lava flowing out from the bowels of the Earth. It was like a living being with circulating blood.

In the excitement, I did something that in retrospect was incredibly stupid. I stood on a ledge, perhaps 50 cm thick, right above the porthole of the scalding hot lava erupting from the earth beneath my feet. Many others did too.

Sicily is a lovely place of manmade and natural wonders. Don’t pass up an opportunity to see Etna aflame

Look at Etnaweb (in Italian, but Universal) for a fantastic collection of local photos and webcams of the eruption.

Volcanic eruptions are breathtaking events to behold. The residual plumes of smoke and ash can stay aloft for many years and can also effect how we see other astronomical events such as our view of solar and lunar eclipses.

For a more tranquil view of Earth and inspiration from Carl Sagan, click here

NASA’s Spirit robot is positioned next to an ancient and extinct volcanic feature on Mars. Learn more here

Can you envision a place hotter than Etna ? … A scorching, molten hellish world where the temperatures are unimaginably hot

Read about a newly detected Earth-sized planet with lava flows vastly hotter than Etna – or anywhere on Earth for that matter – in this story about a historic new discovery from NASA’s Kepler space telescope

Comment or send me your photos and eyewitness accounts of erupting Mt Etna

Signs of activity at the summit of Mount Etna, Europe’s most active volcano.
Water vapor and other volcanic gases overflow Etna’s summit craters, spilling out over the volcano’s upper slopes. A steam plume rises from a collapse pit that formed in late 2009, the newest volcanic feature on Etna. Dark lava flows from recent eruptions cover the peak, overlaying lighter, weathered flows from hundreds or thousands of years ago. (Numbers on the image indicate when a flow was erupted.) The oldest lavas are covered by green vegetation. Eruptive cones and fissures also dot the landscape. Frequent explosions deep within the Northeast Crater, which may presage an upcoming eruption, are audible at the summit. These explosions were occurring sporadically every few minutes, as recorded by nearby seismometers. This natural-color satellite image was acquired by the Advanced Land Imager (ALI) aboard (EO-1) on September 26, 2010.
Mt Etna photographed by astronauts aboard the International Space Station on August, 2, 2006.
One of the most consistently active volcanoes in the world, Sicily’s Mount Etna has a historical record of eruptions dating back to 1500 BC. This astronaut photograph captures plumes of steam and possibly ash originating from summit craters on the mountain: the Northeast Crater and Central Crater, which includes two secondary craters (Voragine and Bocca Nuova). Locals heard explosions coming from the rim of the Northeast Crater on July 26, 2006, and the plumes shown in this image are likely a continuation of that activity. Credit: NASA.

Great View! January 4 Solar Eclipse As Seen From Space

Here’s a unique view of the January 4 partial solar eclipse: ESA’s sun-watching microsatellite Proba-2 captured the conjunction of the spheres as the Sun, Moon and Earth all lined up in front of it. Shortly after the Moon partially blocked Proba-2’s view of the Sun, the satellite flew into Earth’s shadow. At that point – when the video seen here goes dark – the Sun, Moon, Earth and Proba-2 were all on the same line in space.

“This is a notable event,” said Bogdan Nicula of the Royal Observatory of Belgium (ROB), who calculated where and when this double-eclipse would happen. “It is a nice exercise to model the orbit and relative positions of all three celestial bodies.”
Continue reading “Great View! January 4 Solar Eclipse As Seen From Space”

Highlights of 2010 from the European Space Agency

It has been another great year in space, and the European Space Agency has put together a video highlight reel for 2010. They look at the achievements in different areas, including Earth Observation, Science, Human Spaceflight and Telecommunications. From the launch of Cryosat to the Planck sky scan, from Node 3 Cupola completing the ISS to Paolo Nespoli launching on the Soyuz to the ISS, from the Rosetta flyby of asteroid Lutetia to the launch of Hylas providing broadband for Europe.