Next Shuttle Launch is Go; Universe Today Will Be There

Endeavour on the launchpad for STS-130. Credit: NASA


Liftoff of space shuttle Endeavour for the STS-130 mission to the International Space Station has been been given the go-ahead, and launch is scheduled for Feb. 7 at 4:39 a.m. EST. Universe Today will be at the launch to provide on-site coverage of all the pre- and post-launch events, and we look forward to sharing the experience with you. This is likely the last night launch of the space shuttle, and it should be a beautiful sight.

STS-130 will bring the Tranquility node and a cupola, a 7-window observation portal for the ISS. Mission managers said at a press briefing today that the issue with problematic ammonia coolant hoses on the module has been resolved. The 7-member crew will carry out three spacewalks to install and outfit the Tranquility node.

Space Station Pictures


Here are some space station pictures. We’ve already done photo galleries of the International Space Station, but let’s take a look at some different stations as well:

This is a picture of the Mir Space Station, launched by Russia. This photograph was taken by the crew of STS-89 on the space shuttle Endeavour.

Space Station

Here is a recent image of the International Space Station captured by the crew of STS-129. It shows how much of the construction has now been completed.


This is a picture of Skylab, the United States’ first space station. It was in orbit from 1973 to 1979, and was visited by 3 crews of astronauts.

Stanford Torus

And maybe some day we’ll live in a futuristic space station like this. It’s called a Stanford Torus, and rotates to provide the people living inside an artificial gravity.

Bigelow station

This is an artist’s impression of a future space hotel developed by Bigelow Aerospace. The various modules are inflated and connected together. Test versions of the modules have already been sent into orbit.

We’ve written many articles about the International Space Station for Universe Today. Here’s an article about how you can track the International Space Station, and here’s an article about a how a radio operator was able to communicate with the station.

If you’d like more info on the station, check out NASA’s mission page for ISS. And here’s a link to NASA’s human spaceflight page for the station.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast about the space shuttle. Listen here, Episode 127: The US Space Shuttle.

What Would NASA Do with an Added Shuttle Flight?

Space Shuttle Atlantis sits poised for the STS 129 launch from Pad 39 A on 16 November 2009. Atlantis would likely fly a proposed new flight as STS-135. Credit: Ken Kremer

The end of the Space Shuttle Era is rapidly approaching and with it some urgent questions including, “How will the US support continued use of the ISS?” and “What would NASA do if granted an additional shuttle flight?”

Currently, only 5 flights remain on the manifest and right now, the final shuttle flight is set for September 2010. This deadline and policy was decreed by the Bush Administration and simultaneously coincides with the end of ISS assembly and the end of the Fiscal 2010 budget year. Thus far the Obama Administration has not announced any policy changes despite recurring questions from Congress and the press as the retirement approaches.
ISS.  Credit: NASA

Then comes the big “gap” in US human spaceflight launch capability between the looming shuttle shutdown and the debut of the Orion capsule. Orion will not be ready until 2015 or later. So there will be a minimum 5 year “gap” when NASA cannot launch its own astronauts or even unmanned cargo supply vessels to the International Space Station which will operate until at least 2015. Hence the practical questions from the US side on “How to re-supply the ISS?”

NASA will then be utterly dependent on Russia to launch US astronauts to the ISS at a cost of some $50 million per Soyuz seat. Several companies are receiving NASA funding under the COTS program to develop cargo up-mass vehicles to the ISS and are also exploring crewed options.

For the most part, the general public is unaware of these facts. Congress has been fully aware of this quandary since 2004 when President Bush announced new NASA goals as part of the VSE or “Vision for Space Exploration” to return to the Moon and beyond to Mars. NASA’s budget has been cut in the intervening years and the “gap” has grown longer. Insufficient funding from Washington, DC directly caused a slower development pace for Orion and the Ares rocket.

One much discussed “gap” closing measure is to slightly extend the deadline for closing out the shuttle program by adding 1 or more new flights. This action requires a direct decision soon from President Obama and enabling funding from Congress.

If granted the authority to extend the Shuttle program with an additional flight, NASA officials at a very high level have already decided on paper what such a mission would entail. Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Space Operations says that the team has done some planning for what is dubbed a ‘contingency’ flight. “It sits on the manifest as a ‘contingency’ if we need to fly it. It would be prudent to have an MPLM (pressurized Multi-purpose logistics module) in there to carry spares and restock station. We originally wanted to have a back up shuttle available in case we had a situation where we needed to do a contingency crew support to keep them in orbit for some period of time.”

At the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), I spoke with Scott Higginbotham about the details of the ‘contingency’ flight. Scott is a shuttle payload mission manager at KSC, most recently for STS-129 . He told me, “If there was to be another mission then the plan is to fly another MPLM. We have two more MPLM’s but only one is flight worthy. For the call up mission, the possible new last flight, we would fly ‘Raffaello’. But NASA needs more money and work modifications to get ‘Raffaello’ ready and up to speed”.

‘Donatello’ MPLM module inside the Space Station Processing Facility at KSC.  This module is being utilized for spare parts. Outer shielding is being removed.   Credit: Ken Kremer
‘Donatello’ MPLM module inside the Space Station Processing Facility at KSC. This module is being utilized for spare parts. Outer shielding is being removed. Credit: Ken Kremer

NASA has three MPLM’s total, named ‘Leonardo’, ‘Raffaello’ and ‘Donatello’ after significant engineers in Italian history and the Ninja turtles too. All were built by Alenia in Italy under contract to the European Space Agency (ESA). ‘Leonardo’ will be permanently attached on the current last flight, STS 133, after “beefing up the outside to provide extra micrometeoroid debris protection for the module. That will allow it to stay on orbit,” according to Gerstenmaier. ‘Leonardo’ would then be redesignated as a Permanent Multipurpose Module, or PMM. Initially it will be docked at a space facing port on the Harmony connecting node.

“Since the MPLM’s only go up on short sortie missions, their shielding is not as thick as the other station elements,” said Higgenbotham. ‘Leonardo’ flies once more in March 2010 and will then be modified to add shielding. “Donatello will never fly. It’s become our spare parts man to be raided if needed.” Alenia also constructed the Tranquility and Cupola long duration modules I observed recently at a ceremony inside the KSC Space Station Processing Facility (LINK). While inside the station facility, I inspected all three of the MPLM’s (see photos).

“Because of the limited number of shuttle missions left and budget constraints, it makes more sense financially to just fly ‘Leonardo’ over and over again. ‘Raffaello’ is being maintained just in case” added Higgenbotham. “We know that we would like to fly more supplies to the station and bring things home. But whether we actually go prepare ‘Raffaello’ for that contingency mission is being discussed. So we are doing some of the advanced exercises in case we get turned on.”

Leonardo’ MPLM module inside the Space Station Processing Facility at KSC built by Alenia under contract to ESA and the Italian Space Agency (ASI).  This module will be left attached to the ISS on the last scheduled shuttle mission, STS 133. It will be modified with additional shielding for protection against strikes by micrometeoroids. Note grapple fixture at top. Each MPLM is 21 feet long, 15 feet in diameter, weighs 4.5 tons, and can deliver up to 10 tons of cargo to the ISS.  Credit: Ken Kremer
Leonardo’ MPLM module inside the Space Station Processing Facility at KSC built by Alenia under contract to ESA and the Italian Space Agency (ASI). This module will be left attached to the ISS on the last scheduled shuttle mission, STS 133. It will be modified with additional shielding for protection against strikes by micrometeoroids. Note grapple fixture at top. Each MPLM is 21 feet long, 15 feet in diameter, weighs 4.5 tons, and can deliver up to 10 tons of cargo to the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer

“We know the big picture of what would be included. It would include science experiments, spare parts, food, clothing, station consumables and what the crew needs to get by day to day”, he said. “So if I have the ability to launch another MPLM mission, then I can loft thousands of pounds that I don’t need to pay a commercial vendor or the Russians to do,” Higgenbotham explained. “We can save them for other items that may break down in the future.”

Large outside items would probably not go up on that mission. “The expectation is we are going to clear the house of all large external parts by the time the last mission flies. All those are planned for going up on the already manifested missions. We have analyzed what’s needed over the lifetime of the station if we extend out to 2020,” said Higgenbotham.

The station must be continually resupplied with spare parts and logistics for its remaining lifetime whether it’s 2015 or longer to 2020 which is far beyond the upcoming retirement of the Space Shuttle.

“NASA has one External Tank (ET) already built for the ‘contingency’ mission” according to Mike Moses, shuttle integration manager at KSC. Two others exist only in pieces he told me. Since it takes 3 years to build a new ET from scratch, there would be some launch delay for any further missions beyond the possible ‘contingency’ flight.

The future goals of NASA and US human and robotic spaceflight hangs in the balance awaiting critical choices by President Obama and political leaders in Washington, DC. At this point, there is no indication of when President Obama will make a decision on goals or funding. With each day’s delay, the chances to extend the shuttle program are diminished as US manufacturing production lines are shut down, more shuttle workers are layed off and their high technology skills are lost.

About 7000 shuttle workers will lose their jobs at KSC and many more across the US as the Space Shuttle program is terminated in the midst of the current recession.

A Day in the Life on Board the ISS

In this video, International Space Station commander Frank De Winne explains what a typical day on board the ISS is like. Today, however, De Winne and his crew of Robert Thirsk, Roman Romanenko, Nicole Stott, Maxim Suraev and Jeffrey Williams are busy getting ready for the arrival of the STS-129 space shuttle crew. They need to set up to take pictures of the incoming shuttle to document the condition of the shuttle’s heat shield as it makes a “back flip” or a rendezvous pitch maneuver during its approach to the station. Plus, if the crew is anything like me, they probably have some last minute tidying to do before company arrives. Docking is scheduled for 11:53 a.m. EST. Watch it live on NASA TV.

International Space Station Viewing

The ISS. Credit: NASA

Now that it’s mostly complete, the International Space Station is the brightest human-built object in space. It’s easy to see with your own eyes, the trick is knowing when to step outside and look up to see the station go overhead. If you do get your timing right, you’ll see the station as a bright star moving quickly in the sky. It only take a couple of minutes to pass through the sky above your house. Want to see the station for yourself? Here are some resources for International Space Station viewing.

The best place to go is NASA’s Human Spaceflight tracking page. This shows you the current location of the International Space Station, the Hubble Space Telescope, and any space shuttles currently in orbit.

So that shows you where the space station and shuttles are right now, but how will you know when they’re going to be passing over your part of the Earth?

NASA has a page for sighting opportunities. You can either choose your location from a list of common locations around the world, or you download an application that lets you pick your specific spot on Earth. It will then tell you the exact times ISS will be passing overhead.

If you’ve got an iPhone, check out the ISS Visibility App. This tool will calculate the next times you’ll be able to see the ISS pass overhead.

You can also use a great service called Heavens Above. This will also show you the current location of satellites, as give you times when ISS will be passing overhead.

We have written many articles about the International Space Station for Universe Today. Here’s an article about how ISS is now visible in the daytime.

We have recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast about the space shuttle. Listen to it here, Episode 127: The US Space Shuttle.

ISS Tracking

International Space Station. Credit: NASA

The International Space Station, or ISS, is the largest object every built by humans in space. And because it’s so large, it’s also very bright; easily visible with the unaided eye. The ISS also follows an orbital track that takes over different parts of the Earth. That means if you know the right time, you can go out and watch the station pass right over. But you need to know the right time, and that requires some kind of ISS tracking tool. Let’s take a look at some ISS tracking tools you can use to tell you when you should head outside and look up.

The best place to track ISS is from NASA’s human space flight ISS tracking page. This site will tell you the current location of the International Space Station, and space shuttles currently in flight, and the Hubble Space Telescope. The problem is that this tells you where the space station is right now, and not when it’s going to be passing through your skies… at night.

A better tool for that is the ISS sightings page. You download an applet that lets you put in your place on Earth and it gives you some upcoming dates and times that the station will be passing overhead. There’s also a quick drop down box, where you can select your location from many places in the world.

Another great tool is Heavens Above. It allows you to track the current position of thousands of satellites, including ISS and the space shuttles, when they’re in orbit.

So use one of these tools for ISS tracking, and then head outside and see if you can see the station with your own eyes.

We have written many articles about the International Space Station. Here’s an article about how you can actually see ISS in the daytime; it’s just that bright. And here’s an image of ISS and the shuttle transiting the Sun.

We have recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast that talks about the Space Station’s orbit.

“Suits and Ties” Collaborate on Successful Space Station Repair


At the end of Wednesday’s successful spacewalk to change out a faulty motor on one of the International Space Station’s solar array positioning devices, the astronauts outside the ISS and flight controllers in Houston were congratulating each other on the group effort it took to pull off this particularly tricky and potentially dangerous repair job.

“You guys looked really good to us. Thanks for making it look so easy,” Mission Control in Houston radioed up to the spacewalkers after their seven-hour and 10 minutes EVA.

“Yeah,” said ISS astronaut Dan Tani. “And we did’t even have to put on a tie.”

This spacewalk really was a collaboration between the “suits and ties” at NASA. The suits — spacesuits, that is — were worn by astronauts Tani and Peggy Whitson. The ties were sported by the engineers and astronauts in Mission Control who planned the repair and guided the spacewalkers during the entire EVA.

Tani and Whitson were thanking one tie-wearing astronaut in particular. Tom Marshburn had practiced the choreography of the spacewalk in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab in Houston, and shared his insights with the spacewalkers. Usually astronauts get to practice their own EVA’s in the enormous pool that contains a mock-up of the ISS. But the Bearing Motor Roll Ring Module on the starboard solar array quit working in December when Whitson and Tani were already on board the station. So the plan and nuances of the EVA were tested in the pool by Marshburn and former ISS resident Suni Williams and relayed up to Tani and Whitson.

The spacewalk was especially hazardous because of the risk of electrical shock from 160 volts of electricity that flows through the arrays. For safety, Whitson and Tani waited until the International Space Station was on the dark side of Earth, giving them only 33 minute increments to complete their tasks. Whitson had to squeeze inside the station’s truss girder to swap out the 250 pound (113 kilograms) garbage can-sized motor.

The new motor successfully performed a 360-degree test spin during the spacewalk. It’s power-generating capabilities were tested successfully as well.

“Yay, it works!” exclaimed Whitson as she and Tani watched the solar wing turn. “Excellent, outstanding…isn’t that cool?”

The successful repair means the station should be able to generate enough power to support the new modules that will be brought on the next shuttle missions, the European Columbus science lab, and the Japanese Kibo labratory.

“Given the complexity of this spacewalk and the risks that we had to manage … we are exceptionally pleased with how things went,” flight director Kwatsi Alibaruho said after the EVA.

In addition to the motor repair, Whitson and Tani also performed another inspection of the station’s starboard Solar Alpha Rotary Joint, a 10-ft wide gear that keeps the solar wings pointing toward the sun The SARJ is not working and is contaminated with metal shavings. The spacewalkers evaluated damage from the debris and collected samples from areas previously unseen.

Alibaruho said the new debris samples will help determine what repairs will be done, perhaps later this year. NASA hopes to launch up to five shuttle flights to the ISS this year.

Wednesday’s EVA was the final planned spacewalk of the Expedition 16 mission and the 101st dedicated to space station assembly and maintenance. The spacewalk also marked the sixth career EVA’s for both Whitson and Tani.

So, there’s just one question for Dan Tani: Which is harder — donning a 280 lb spacesuit or tying a Windsor Knot?

Original News Source: NASA TV

ISS Astronaut Dan Tani’s Mother Killed


Our condolences to space station astronaut Dan Tani, whose mother was killed on Wednesday in a car/train accident. Tani has been on board the ISS since October, and in all likelihood would have returned back to earth on Wednesday if space shuttle Atlantis had been able to launch as originally scheduled on Dec. 6. However, the shuttle has been grounded because of malfunctioning engine cutoff sensors in the external fuel tank. As it stands now, the earliest Tani could return home would be late January.

The Chicago Tribune reported that 90-year old Rose Tani was stopped at a railroad track behind a school bus carrying students from her son’s alma mater in Lombard, Illinois. The gates at the track were lowered, but Mrs. Tani honked her car’s horn and then drove around the bus and past the crossing gates when a freight train struck her car.

NASA officials called Tani over a secured connection to tell him the news, and then offered any help he might need. “He would get whatever personal, psychological and spiritual counseling he would need,” NASA spokesman Jim Rostohar told the Tribune. “He can talk it out through a private phone line.”

While the ISS is equipped with a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to be used in an emergency as a rescue vehicle for the crew, the death of a family member does not fall under the conditions that the escape vehicle would be used. “Before anyone launches, they understand that unfortunate things could happen and that’s unfortunately part of the difficulties, hardships and risks of space flight,” said Rostohar.

Tani is the youngest of four children and his father passed away when Tani was young. A minister at a church in Lombard told the Tribune that Tani and his mother were “incredibly close.” During a spacewalk in November, Tani sent a greeting to his mother. “I know my mom’s watching on the Internet in Chicago, so hi Mom!” he said. “It’s always fun to have your folks watching you at work.”

Original News Source: Chicago Tribune