Wow! Astronauts on EVA, As Seen From Earth

Ralf Vandebergh’s detail of an image he took on March 21, 2009 showing astronauts working outside the ISS. Credit: Ralf Vandebergh

Remember when it was a big deal when amateur astronomers starting imaging the International Space Station as seen from Earth, showing individual modules and other parts of the space station? One of the most proficient astrophotographers in that department has now just upped the game: Ralf Vandebergh has captured images of astronauts working outside the ISS during an EVA. Vandebergh, who lives in The Netherlands, used his 10-inch Newtonian backyard telescope to capture an image of STS-119 astronauts Joe Acaba and Steve Swanson working outside the ISS to install equipment on one of the trusses during the second EVA of the mission on March 21, 2009. Vandebergh told me he has been trying to image astronauts working outside the ISS since 2007, but hasn’t been successful until now. “In all opportunities I had until now, the astronauts were not on a visible part of the station,” he said “or they were in shadow or the pass or the seeing was simply not favourable.”

Below, enjoy the video Vandebergh created about his extreme zoom-in handiwork, and his explanation of how he was able to take the images.

Nice job Ralf! Check out his website of other telescopic spacecraft image here.

“It was great luck they were working on the Earth-facing side of the port 3 truss on this spacewalk,” Vandebergh said. “Why? This truss is a reasonable open structure, which means it appears a little bit transparent as seen from the Earth with the black space as a background. This makes this particular truss (and the Starboard 3 truss on the other side) look considerably darker then the other trusses in the vicinity.
When a high reflective white suited spacewalker works in front of this truss, there is a very good
chance you receive light from it on your CCD. By following very precisely the live station camera’s–
and helmet cam recordings on NASA TV, I knew exactly were to expect them on the image.”

Butterflynauts Emerge from Cocoons on ISS

[/caption]
Four “butterflynauts” have emerged on the International Space Station. They are part of a suitcase sized educational experiment that was rocketed to space on Nov. 16 on space shuttle Atlantis as part of the STS-129 mission. Students of all ages and the public are invited to follow the tiny crew’s development from larvae to adult butterflies in the microgravity of space.

In over 100 classrooms across the U.S., students have set up habitats and are replicating the space experiment. Their objective is to compare the growth and behavior of ground-based butterfly larvae and adult butterflies with those living in the microgravity environment of space. New pictures and videos and Powerpoint slides are available almost daily.

A free Butterflies in Space teacher’s guide can be downloaded from BioEd Online at the Butterflies in Space website here. The project is sponsored by National Space Biomedical Research Institute.

Initial results show that there appears to be no difference in the development rates of these butterflies in a microgravity environment as compared to Earth’s gravity, which is a fairly significant finding. While microgravity environment has obvious impacts on human health and physiology, relatively little is known about how microgravity whould effect human growth and development. While there are major differences between humans and butterflies, basic cellular divisions in follow similar processes. Therefore, the success of the butterfly experiment in space indicates that a human embryo could potentially survive and develop normally in space even in the absence of gravity.

ISS Temporarily Down to Crew of 2

Following today’s departure of the three man crew of Expedition 21 aboard the Soyuz TMA 15 capsule, staffing on the International Space Station (ISS) is now temporarily reduced to a skeleton crew of just 2 men for the first time since July 2006. The ISS had hosted a complete 6 person and truly international crew complement for the first time ever since its inception, starting in May of this year.

Soyuz Commander Roman Romanenko (Russia), European Space Agency Flight Engineer Frank De Winne (Belgium) and Canadian Space Agency Flight Engineer Bob Thirsk floated into their three segment Soyuz return capsule on Monday evening, Nov 30. After powering up systems and a farewell ceremony the hatches were closed at 7:43 PM EST. They disengaged hooks and latches and then physically undocked from the Zarya module at 10:56 PM over Mongolia after spending 188 days in space. De Winne was the first European commander of the ISS. All prior commanders have been either Russian or American. Romanenko is a second generation cosmonaut. His father Yuri, flew his first mission in 1980. Thirsk is the first long duration Canadian astronaut.

Soyuz TMA 15 landing track. Credit: NASA TV
Soyuz TMA 15 landing track. Credit: NASA TV

Retro rockets were fired for 4 min 19 sec at 1:26 AM Tuesday morning to initiate the de-orbit braking maneuver for the fiery plunge of atmospheric reentry. 19 minutes later the three Soyuz segments pyrotechnically separated at an altitude of 87 miles. The Soyuz barreled backwards as it hit the earth’s atmosphere at 400,000 ft above Africa and the crew experienced maximum G forces. The three parachuted to a safe touchdown strapped inside their Soyuz descent module onto the snowy steppes of Kazakhstan at 2:15 AM Tuesday Dec 1 (1:15 PM Kazakhstan local time) thereby concluding a mission that began with a May 27 blast off. Russian search and recovery forces drove to the ice cold landing zone at Arkalyk to greet and assist the trio in opening the hatch, exiting the craft, readapting to earth’s gravity and returning to Star City. This was the first December landing of a Soyuz since 1990.

Poor icy weather and low clouds grounded the normal recovery force of 8 helicopters. The capsule landed right on target and in an upright configuration. Recovery forces sped quickly into place. Romanenko was first to depart out the top hatch of the capsule, followed by Thirsk and De Winne. They were carefully extracted by the ground based recovery team and immediately assisted into stretchers while smiling broadly and waving to the crowd. Then they were swiftly slid into all terrain vehicles larger than their capsule for the initial leg of the ride back to Russia. Flight surgeons confirmed the health of the crew who are eager to re-unite with family and friends and earthly comforts.

The Expedition 22 core crew of NASA Commander Jeff Williams and Russian Flight Engineer Max Suraev remain as the sole two occupants for about three weeks until the Dec 23 arrival of the next international crew comprising Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, NASA’s T.J. Creamer, and Soichi Noguchi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency who head to the station Dec. 20 on the Soyuz TMA-17 craft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Williams and Suraev arrived by Soyuz capsule TMA -16 in October.

US astronaut Nicolle Stott rounded out the six person ISS crew until her departure just days ago on Nov 25 aboard shuttle Atlantis (link) left just five people on board. She spent 91 days aloft conducting science experiments and has the distinction of being the last ISS resident to hitch a ride up and down on a shuttle. Future crew rotations are planned via Russian Soyuz rockets since the shuttle will be retired by late 2010 and NASA’s Ares / Orion launch system won’t debut until 2015 or later.

Watch video of the shuttle “belly flip” as it arrives at the station.

During 7 days of joint operations in late November, the ISS boasted an ethnically diverse population of 12 humans from the combined crews of STS 129 Atlantis and the resident ISS members from two docked Soyuz capsules, just shy of the record 13 occupants. With all the comings and goings of assorted manned and robotic spaceships lately it’s been an exceptionally busy time that required careful planning and traffic coordination among the world’s space agencies.

The 800,000 pound station is now 86% complete and thus far larger and more complex compared to the last instance of a two person contingent. Since the 2005 Return to Flight of the shuttle following the Columbia accident, several habitable modules (Harmony, Columbus, Kibo, Poisk), truss segments, radiators, stowage platforms and giant solar arrays have been attached. All this has vastly expanded the astronauts and cosmonauts daily responsibilities of both maintaining station systems and carrying out a much expanded scientific research program.

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s chief of space operations, said the ISS partners have carefully looked at the operational challenges of this three week interlude to make sure “there is not a lot of activity going on then, other than some software uploads. We moved all the major activities that were occurring to other periods when there will be more crew. We are prepared and ready to cut back a little on operations but still be able to do a little bit of science research with just two crew members on orbit.”

Three space walks by the Atlantis crew helped pave the way for the next shuttle ISS assembly flight in February 2010, designated STS 130, which will haul up the long awaited Tranquility and Cupola modules and which I recently observed close up at the ESA to NASA hand off ceremony inside the Space Station Processing Facility (link) (SSPF) at the Kennedy Space Center.

Atlantis delivered two large pallets loaded with 15 tons of critical spare parts that will help extend the working lifetime of the ISS and serve as a hedge against on orbit equipment failures ahead of the fast approaching deadline when the space shuttle is no longer available to loft such bulky gear.

Only 5 flights remain until the shuttle era ends late in 2010. The Orion capsule will not debut for at least five years and perhaps longer, dependent on funding decisions in Washington, DC. The station will then be completely dependent for supplies and equipment on Russian, European and Japanese cargo vehicles. Test flights of US commercial ISS transport vessels begin next year.

Not until another three person Soyuz blasts off next April 2010, will the station return to a full team of six. But science research will be full speed ahead.

Amazing Images from STS-129

If I didn’t know better, I’d swear some of the images from the STS-129 shuttle mission to the International Space Station were CGI renderings taken from a science fiction novel. Take the above image, for example of astronaut Mike Foreman working on the exterior of the ISS during the second space walk of the mission. It looks almost surreal. But these are genuine images of real people working on an authentic, almost-completed space station. This images, and the other images below, leave me in awe of what we are accomplishing in space. Enjoy this gallery of amazing images from the fifth and last shuttle flight of 2009.

Robert Satcher on the Canadarm2 during the first space walk of STS-129. Credit: NASA
Robert Satcher on the Canadarm2 during the first space walk of STS-129. Credit: NASA

Here’s another awe-inspiring image. Anchored to a Canadarm2 mobile foot restraint, astronaut Robert Satcher Jr. works during the first space walk of the mission. Satcher and Mike Foreman (out of frame)installed antennas, cables, and other items to prepare for the Tranquility node that will be brought up to the station next year.

Starship Enterprise?  No, just the space shuttle and space station. Credit: NASA
Starship Enterprise? No, just the space shuttle and space station. Credit: NASA

There was some chatter on Twitter that this image brought to mind visions of the Starship Enterprise from Star Trek. But this is a closeup of Atlantis’ docking ring backdropped by the ISS as the shuttle crew approached for docking with the station. Docking occurred at 10:51 a.m. (CST) on Nov. 18, 2009.

Sun rise in space. Credit: NASA

Another great shot: Sunrise in space. This scene shows from the Russian section of the ISS, as photographed by one of the STS-129 crew members.

Satcher works on the Z1 truss.  Credit: NASA
Satcher works on the Z1 truss. Credit: NASA

I always love these images which demonstrate how HUGE the ISS is. Here, Robert Satcher works on the Z1 truss section during the first EVA of the mission.

ISS and docked spacecraft. Credit: NASA
ISS and docked spacecraft. Credit: NASA

Taking on the appearance of a busy spaceport, the Russian segment of the ISS has a docked Soyuz spacecraft (center) and a Progress resupply vehicle that is docked to the Pirs Docking Compartment.

Mike Foreman looks at his spacewalking partner Randy Bresnik.  Credit: NASA
Mike Foreman looks at his spacewalking partner Randy Bresnik. Credit: NASA

Every shuttle mission picture gallery isn’t complete without a picture of an astronaut with another astronaut visible in the helmet visor reflection. Here, Mike Foreman’s helmet reveals his crewmate, Randy Bresnik, capturing the image with an electronic still camera. The two were in the midst of the second scheduled space walk for the Atlantis crewmembers.

Upside down, or not?  Credit: NASA
Upside down, or not? Credit: NASA

Who is upside down? Charlie Hobaugh (left), STS-129 commander and Robert Satcher , or the astronaut who took the picture? The two are pictured near a window in the Destiny laboratory.

Mealtime on the ISS. Credit: NASA
Mealtime on the ISS. Credit: NASA

Eight of the 12 crew members of the joint ISS/shuttle crews pose for a photo at the galley in the Unity node. Pictured from the left are NASA astronauts Leland Melvin, Robert Satcher Jr., Charlie Hobaugh, Nicole Stott, cosmonauts Roman Romanenko, Maxim Suraev, and astronauts Jeff Williams, and Frank De Winne, commander of Expedition 21 from the ESA.

Launch of Atlantis on Nov. 16, 2009. Credit: NASA
Launch of Atlantis on Nov. 16, 2009. Credit: NASA

A gorgeous shot of Atlantis’ launch on Nov. 16. Below is another launch picture, with the members of the NASA Tweetup watching by the famous countdown clock.

Atlantis' launch with Twitterers.  Photo credit:Jim Grossmann
Atlantis' launch with Twitterers. Photo credit:Jim Grossmann

Tranquility Module Formally Handed over to NASA from ESA

The European Space Agency (ESA) formally transferred ownership of the Tranquility habitable manned module over to NASA at a commemorative handoff ceremony inside the Space Station Processing Facility (SSPF) at the Kennedy Space Center on Friday, November 20. Tranquility is the last element of a barter agreement between ESA and NASA for station hardware. Included on the module is the “Cupola,” which will provide astronauts with a panoramic view from the largest window flown in space.

ESA contributed the module known as Node 3 in exchange for NASA’s delivery of ESA’s Columbus laboratory to the station in 2008. Thales Alenia Space in Turin (Torino), Italy, built the module in partnership with ESA and the Italian Space Agency (ASI) and delivered it to KSC in May 2009 aboard an Airbus ‘Beluga’.

Official documents formalizing the ownership exchange were signed by Bernardo Patti, the space station manager for ESA and Michael Suffredini, the space station manager for NASA. A crowd of managers and technicians from NASA, ESA, Thales and Boeing involved in building and processing the node for flight witnessed the event. Media like myself were in attendance to document the transfer formalities.

Bernardo Patti (left), the ESA space station manager for ESA and Michael Suffredini (right), the NASA space station manager sign Tranquility module ownership transfer documents inside the Space Station Processing Facility (SSPF) on 20 November 2009. Credit: Ken Kremer
Bernardo Patti (left), the ESA space station manager for ESA and Michael Suffredini (right), the NASA space station manager sign Tranquility module ownership transfer documents inside the Space Station Processing Facility (SSPF) on 20 November 2009. Credit: Ken Kremer

“We are very proud to accept this module”, said Suffredini. “In some ways it’s a bittersweet moment because it represents a tailing off of assembly and using the SSPF. But Tranquility was built to start human life beyond Earth as we put things together on-orbit. More than just the work, history will look back at the legacy of the partnership that was built here.

Patti responded saying, “Yes it’s sad that the room is getting empty, but we are very happy that Tranquility is going to the ISS which is a platform for an exploration program that we are privileged to have a future with”.

Attached to the end cone of Tranquility is the Cupola advanced observation module and robotics work station. Both segments are set to launch aboard the next shuttle flight, STS 130, presently scheduled for a 4 February 2010 blast off.

One of the major tasks of spacewalking astronauts aboard the current STS 129 flight of shuttle Atlantis is equipment work to prepare the way for the attachment of Tranquility and the Cupola to the port side hatch of the Unity Node on the ISS by the STS 130 crew of shuttle Endeavour. The astronauts have removed and repositioned external brackets, handrails, micrometeoroid shields, computer and electrical connections.

Tranquility is a complex pressurized interconnecting node that will provide increased living and scientific workspace for the resident ISS crews and house “many of the stations critical life support systems”, Suffredini said to me in an interview following the ceremony. Tranquility will be home to the racks for the advanced Environmental Control and Life Support Systems. This includes the equipment for revitalizing the station atmosphere and removing contaminants, generating oxygen and providing breathable air, carbon dioxide removal, recycling waste water into potable drinking water, the crew toilet and the Colbert Treadmill for crew exercise. Suffredini added, “The check out and activation period for Tranquility will occur during the shuttle mission. The racks are already aboard the ISS and just need to be moved and installed. Many of them are aboard the Destiny module. Their relocation will free up research space”.

The Cupola will function as a panoramic control tower through which operations outside the station can be observed and guided with command and control workstations inside. The circular top window is 80 cm in diameter, making it the largest window flown in space.

Side view of the Tranquility and Cupola modules which will be delivered to the ISS on the STS130 mission by shuttle Endeavour.  The two modules combined weigh over 13.5 tons. Tranquility has six docking ports and is 7 meters (21 ft) in length and 4.5 meters (14.7 ft) in diameter with a pressurized volume of 75 cubic meters (2650 cubic ft).  Credit: Ken Kremer
Side view of the Tranquility and Cupola modules which will be delivered to the ISS on the STS130 mission by shuttle Endeavour. The two modules combined weigh over 13.5 tons. Tranquility has six docking ports and is 7 meters (21 ft) in length and 4.5 meters (14.7 ft) in diameter with a pressurized volume of 75 cubic meters (2650 cubic ft). Credit: Ken Kremer

The unique 7 windowed Cupola module will afford astronauts a heretofore unparalleled 360 degree viewing spectrum of the Earth, the station and the cosmos, said KSC Director Bob Cabana. It will be used for earth observation and space science. Cabana commanded the space shuttle mission which delivered the first US space station component to space, the Unity node and docked it to the Russian Zarya control module to commence ISS assembly in 1998.

‘Tranquility’ is named in honor the Sea of Tranquility, the lunar landing site for Apollo 11 which was NASA’s first flight to land man on the moon in July 1969.

Lead image caption: Michael Suffredini, the ISS manager for NASA accepts ownership of the Node 3 Tranquility module from ESA at hand off ceremony inside the Space Station Processing Facility (SSPF) at the Kennedy Space Center on 20 November 2009. Cupola observation module is attached at forward hatch in center and covered with thermal protection blankets. Note robotic arm grapple fixture at lower right. Credit: Ken Kremer

Spectacular Shuttle Belly Flip As Atlantis Docks to ISS (Video)

Hypervelocity


(Editor’s note: Ken Kremer is in Florida covering the STS-129 mission for Universe Today)
The astronaut crews for the International Space Station and Space Shuttle Atlantis united as one team in space on Wednesday when Atlantis successfully docked with the ISS at 11:51PM EST. Preluded by some of the most spectacular footage ever of the shuttle “belly flip” or the Rendezvous Pitch Manuaever (RPM), docking occurred in orbital darkness about 220 miles high above earth and directly between Australia and Tasmania. The shuttle astronauts were welcomed aboard the ISS and the jubilant crews exchanged bear hugs, handshakes and high fives inside the Harmony module.

Thursday morning at 9:24 a.m. EST, STS-129 spacewalkers Mike Foreman and Robert Satcher headed outside for the first spacewalk of the mission.

The shuttle docked at a port on Harmony, located on the US end of the station and parallel to the earth below. Russian Soyuz manned capsules dock at the opposite end of ISS on the Russian side of the station. The ISS currently weighs over 800,000 pounds.

After a series of leak checks, hatches between the two vehicles were at last opened at 1:28 PM EST, at 1 day and 23 hours mission elapsed time for Atlantis marking the start of joint operations. ISS Commander Frank DeWinne from Belgium performed a brief ceremony. With an overall crew of 12 people representing many ISS partners, Harmony was rather crowded. The shuttle astronauts received a safety briefing and tour.

Later in the day, Nicolle Stott’s tenure as an ISS crew member ended and she transitioned over to become an official member of the shuttle crew for her return to earth. She will be seated on a special recumbent seat brought aloft by Atlantis. Stott has spent 3 months aboard the station.
[/caption]

Commander Charles “Scorch” Hobaugh piloted Atlantis for the final approach to the ISS from behind and below. After guiding the shuttle to a distance of 600 ft he initiated a spectacular back flip, known as the Rendezvous Pitch Maneuver (RPM), about 30 minutes prior to docking. Hobaugh began the now standard 360 degree back flip maneuver while flying in formation with the ISS at Mach 25 above the Amazon.

The purpose is to collect obtain high resolution imagery of the delicate heat shield tiles which protect the orbiter during the searing heat of reentry. The photos are carefully inspected to look for any signs of damage to the over 20,000 tiles before NASA commits the shuttle to landing back on earth.

Why is this photography important? Because any heat shield leak can be catastrophic for the vehicle and crew. That lesson was tragically learned during the reentry of Columbia.

Station astronauts Jeff Williams and Nicole Stott had about 90 seconds to photograph Atlantis’ belly while aiming 800 mm and 400 mm telephoto lenses respectively through portholes on the Russian Zvezda module. They snapped hundreds of digital photographs which were quickly down linked for analysis by teams waiting in Houston. The spectacular show was carried live on NASA TV.

Atlantis cargo bay carrying spare parts for installation on the ISS with earth in the background. Credit: NASA
Atlantis cargo bay carrying spare parts for installation on the ISS with earth in the background. Credit: NASA

With Atlantis cargo bay pointing towards the ISS the RPM began with a dramatic pitch of the nose upwards and a stunningly beautiful view of earth in the background. Continuing on a full circular path, the shuttle spun around until the bright belly nearly filled the TV screen. Individual tiles and even the wheels wells were easily discernible as the spin progressed unabated. Momentarily the shuttle was again oriented perpendicularly as the tail faced the ISS with a fantastic view directly down into the shuttle’s three main engines and OMS pod. Finally the Atlantis shuttle returned to the same cargo bay orientation from which it started.

The RPM back flip is true spaceflight and looks like something straight out of a futuristic science fiction TV show or movie like my favorites, Star Trek and Babylon 5. But this is real and it’s happening today. And there is nothing routine about it. Make no mistake. Spaceflight is a highly risky business. And highly rewarding. Only a thin line separates life and death.

In the darkness of space, Hobaugh then closed in on the ISS at 0.2 ft per second. For the last 100 feet, Atlantis gradually slowed even further precisely aligning with the ISS until a flawless docking at 0.1 feet per second. Thrusters fired post contact to force the two docking ports together.

A spring loaded docking system damps out the relative motions of the ISS and shuttle over several minutes. The docking ring was then withdrawn to allow a hard mate between the two vehicles.

The astronauts wasted no time and their workload began right away today. Less than 90 minutes after hatch opening the first of two on board Express Logistics Carriers, dubbed ELC 1, was plucked out of the cargo bay by the shuttle arm. ELC 1 was then handed off to the station arm (Canadarm 2) which plugged it into an earth facing attach point on the ISS port side backbone truss at 4:27 PM. During the back flip and docking sequence approach, the shuttles robotic arm could be seen extending outwards from the cargo bay and attached to the 14,000 pound ELC 1.

The hugh ELC’s measuring 16 ft x 14 ft are designed to hold large space parts like the control moment gyroscopes (CMG’s) which provide orientation control for the station. The ELC’s are brand new equipment provided by NASA Goddard and flying for the first time on a shuttle. Also attached to ELC 1 are the ammonia and nitrogen tank assemblies and a battery charger discharge unit. There are some open attach sites to accommodate new spares brought up on future flights.

The first of three planned spacewalks, or EVA’s, is slated for Thursday at 9 AM and will last about 6½ hours. The astronauts quickly moved their space suits into the stations Quest airlock module to begin configuring all equipment needed. The two spacewalkers will spend the night “camped out” inside Quest to acclimate their bodies and purge nitrogen from their bloodstreams, preventing decompression sickness once they move out into the vacuum of space.

This mission will insure that the ISS has spare parts to sustain operations for several years to come. Having these spare components already on board will enormously simplify ISS planning. Of course, the unexpected can always happen. And that is the impending difficulty caused by the looming retirement of the shuttle.
Potentially the ISS could operate for another 10 years to 2020. Currently the ISS is only funded through 2015 and that’s another decision for President Obama on his packed plate. The other ISS partners, especially Russia, favor an ISS life extension as it just now finally reaches its full science capability.

Ken Kremer’s website

Read my earlier reports from KSC on the flight of Atlantis and Atlas launch attempt here:

Atlantis Roars to Space for Trek to ISS
Tweeters and Atlantis Ready for Launch
Clock Ticking for Shuttle Atlantis on Critical Resupply Mission
Atlas Launch halted by ORCA; Shuttle Atlantis Next in Line

Video Preview of Next Shuttle Mission

The next space shuttle mission STS-129, slated to launch next Monday Nov. 16, is a “spare parts and stock-up” mission. And the needed extra parts and supplies delivered to the International Space Station by Atlantis will mean spare years on the station’s life once the space shuttle fleet is retired. The mission is a landmark of sorts — not sure if it is a good landmark or bad — but STS-129 is scheduled to be the last space shuttle crew rotation flight. From here on out, crew rotation will be done by the Soyuz and any future commercial vehicle that may come online. Besides the crew, a payload of spiders and butterfly larvae will be on board Atlantis for an experiment that will be monitored by thousands of K-12 students across US. Find out more about the flight with a video preview of the mission, below.

STS-129 will be commanded by Charlie Hobaugh and piloted by Barry Wilmore. Mission Specialists are Robert Satcher Jr., Mike Foreman, Randy Bresnik and Leland Melvin. Wilmore, Satcher and Bresnik will be making their first trips to space. The mission will return station crew member Nicole Stott to Earth.

The crew will deliver two control moment gyroscopes and other equipment, plus the EXPRESS Logistics Carrier 1 and 2 to the station. The mission will feature three spacewalks.

New Module for ISS Launches

[/caption]
A new module for the space station blasted off today from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan at 9:22 a.m. EST. The Poisk (which means “explore” in Russian) is a combination docking module/airlock/future research module. It will meet up with the ISS on Thursday at 10:44 am. Poisk is the first permanent pressurized module to be added since May of 2008, when the Japanese “JEM” research module became part of the ISS, and is the first major Russian addition to the station since the Pirs docking compartment was launched in 2001. The new module will be used as an additional docking port for Russian vehicles, as an airlock for Russian-based spacewalks and as a platform for external science experiments.

The new module is almost identical in size to Pirs, at 2.5 meters (8 feet wide) and about 4 meters (13 feet) long. Its first use will be as a docking port during the relocation of a Soyuz crew vehicle in January.

About 1,800 pounds of cargo is loaded into Poisk’s pressurized compartment for delivery to the space station.

A companion module, the Mini Research Module-1, will be carried to orbit on space shuttle Atlantis’ STS-132 mission, targeted to launch in May 2010. That module will be robotically attached to the station’s Zarya module.

Source: NASA

Space Junk May Force Crew from ISS

Update #2, 5:30 pm: NASA has now said that after further analysis, the space debris they have been tracking no longer poses any concern or threat to the ISS. Everyone can rest easy tonight! The piece of debris was only 5 cm long, and will not pass within the “pizza box” zone around the station (0.75 x 25 x 25 kilometers) that calls for an alert.

A hard-to-track piece of space junk may come within a half a kilometer of the International Space Station later today, and NASA managers are considering asking the crew to board the docked Soyuz capsules as a precaution. The time of closest approach is at 10:48 p.m. EST, and the object was detected too late for the station to do an evasive maneuver. Depending on the outcome of additional tracking data analysis, the crew may be awakened later and directed to go into the Soyuz vehicles around 10:30 pm or given the option to sleep in Soyuz tonight. NASA says they don’t believe the crew is at risk, but precautions are prudent in dealing with space debris.

The crew was told about the debris, which ground stations have not been able to track consistently, said NASA spokesman Kyle Herring. Trajectory experts are continuing to verify information about the debris. “All this is a precaution, and we do not believe the crew is in any danger at this time or at the time of closest approach, but are making preparations in the unlikely event the approach would be closer than expected,” Herring said.

UPDATE: 2:30pm: As of now, NASA is planning for the crew to close all the hatches on the station and enter the Soyuz. “We have data that indicates we might be heading to a conjunction, however we do not have enough data to have any confidence in the outcomes we’re predicting at this point,” Capcom Ricky Arnold told the crew from mission control. “We’re hoping we’re going to be a lot smarter at 2200 (GMT), but right now we have to plan for an indication that we will have a conjunction.”

NASA will make a final decision on what course of action they will take at about 5 p.m.

Sources: NASA TV, Twitter

International Space Station Viewing

[/caption]
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.