Culprit Found In Blurry Astronaut Vision Mystery

The ability to take part in long-term space missions is a rare privilege, usually enjoyed by only a handful of men and women within every generation. But that privilege comes with a pretty high price. In addition to all the hard work, training, and sacrifice that is needed to go into space, there are also the health effects of spending prolonged periods in a microgravity environment.

Until recently, the most well-document of these effects were muscle degeneration and loss of bone density. But thanks to a new study released by the Radiological Society of America, it is now understood how microgravity can impair eyesight. This is certainly good news for ISS crews, not to mention the astronauts who will be taking part in long-range missions to Mars and beyond in the near future.

For years, NASA and other space agencies have been seeking to understand how time in space can adversely affect eyesight. Nearly two-thirds of astronauts who have taken part in long-duration missions aboard the International Space Station (ISS) have been diagnosed with Visual Impairment Intracranial Pressure (VIIP) syndrome. Symptoms include blurred vision, flattening at the back of eyeballs, and inflammation of the head of the optic nerves.

Expedition 46 Commander Scott Kelly of NASA rests in a chair outside of the Soyuz TMA-18M spacecraft just minutes after he and cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Sergey Volkov of the Russian space agency Roscosmos landed in a remote area near the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan late Tuesday, March 1 EST. Credits: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Expedition 46 Commander Scott Kelly of NASA resting after returning to Earth in March, 2016. At the time, Kelly established the record for longest time spent in space. Credits: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Previously, scientists believed that the primary source of VIIP was a shift of vascular fluid toward the upper body that takes place when astronauts spend time in the microgravity of space. But thanks to the new study, which was led by Dr. Noam Alperin and his team of researchers from the University of Miami, the cause of the syndrome has been properly diagnosed.

Dr. Alperin is a professor of radiology and biomedical engineering at the Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami and the lead author of the study. According to the study he and his colleagues produced – which was presented on Monday, Nov. 28th, at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America in Chicago – the culprit is cerebrospinal fluid (CSF).

This clear fluid is chiefly responsible for cushioning the brain and spinal cord, circulating nutrients and removing waste materials. At the same time, the CSF system is designed to accommodate significant changes in hydrostatic pressures, like when a person goes from lying down or sitting to a standing position. However, this system evolved within Earth’s own gravity environment, and exposing it to microgravity presents unique challenges.

As Dr. Alperin explained in a RSNA press statement, which coincided with the annual meeting:

“People initially didn’t know what to make of it, and by 2010 there was growing concern as it became apparent that some of the astronauts had severe structural changes that were not fully reversible upon return to Earth. On earth, the CSF system is built to accommodate these pressure changes, but in space the system is confused by the lack of the posture-related pressure changes.”

Astronaut Jeff Williams just established a new record for most time spent in space by a NASA astronaut. Credit: NASA
Astronaut Jeff Williams, who recently broke Kelly’s record for most time spent in space by a NASA astronaut. Credit: NASA

To arrive at this conclusion, Dr. Alperin and his colleague performed a series of before and after MRI scans on seven astronauts who took part in long-duration missions aboard the ISS. The results were compared against nine astronauts who took part in short-duration missions aboard the now-retired Space Shuttle. With the help of some special imaging algorithms, they looked for correlations between changes in CSF volumes and VIIP.

The results of their study Their study, titled “Role of Cerebrospinal Fluid in Spaceflight-Induced Visual Impairment and Ocular Changes“, showed that astronauts who participated in long-duration missions experienced a comparably higher flattening of their eyeballs and protrusions in their optic nerves. These astronauts also had significantly higher post-flight increases in CSF around their optic nerves and in the cavities of the brain where CSF is produced.

This study is both timely and significant, given the growing important of long-duration space missions. At present, it is expected that operations aboard the ISS will last for another decade. One of the most important activities there will be the study of the long-term effects of microgravity on human physiology, which will be intrinsic to preparing astronauts for missions to Mars and other long-range destinations.

Magnetic-resonance (MR) image of an eye before and after a long-duration space flight. Credit: RSNA
Magnetic-resonance (MR) image of an astronauts eye before and after a long-duration space flight. Credit: RSNA

In short, identifying the origin of the space-induced ocular changes will help NASA and other space agencies to develop the proper countermeasures to protect the crew from potentially harmful changes to their eyesight. It will also come in handy for private space ventures that are hoping to send human beings on one-way trips to locations where the gravity is lower than on Earth (i.e. the Moon and Mars).

“The research provides, for the first time, quantitative evidence obtained from short- and long-duration astronauts pointing to the primary and direct role of the CSF in the globe deformations seen in astronauts with visual impairment syndrome,” said Alperin. If the ocular structural deformations are not identified early, astronauts could suffer irreversible damage. As the eye globe becomes more flattened, the astronauts become hyperopic, or far-sighted.”

As the old saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. In addition to having regiments that will help maintain their musculature and bone density, astronauts taking part in long-term missions in the future will also likely need to undergo treatments to ensure their eyesight doesn’t suffer.

Further Reading: RSNA

SpaceX Dragon Splashes Down with NASA’s Station Science Cargo

SpaceX Dragon CRS-9 returned to Earth with a splash down in the Pacific Ocean on Friday, Aug. 26, 2016 after more than a month stay at the International Space Station.  Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Dragon CRS-9 returned to Earth with a splash down in the Pacific Ocean on Friday, Aug. 26, 2016 after more than a month stay at the International Space Station. Credit: SpaceX

A SpaceX commercial Dragon cargo ship returned to Earth today, Friday, Aug. 26, 2016, by splashing down safely in the Pacific Ocean – thus concluding more than a month long stay at the International Space Station (ISS). The vessel was jam packed with some 1.5 tons of NASA cargo and critical science samples for eagerly waiting researchers.

The parachute assisted splashdown of the Dragon CRS-9 cargo freighter took place at 11:47 a.m. EDT today in the Pacific Ocean – located some 326 miles (520 kilometers) southwest of Baja California.

Dragon departed after spending more than five weeks berthed at the ISS.

This image, captured from NASA Television's live coverage, shows SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft departing the International Space Station at 6:10 am EDT Friday, Aug. 26, 2016, after successfully delivering almost 5,000 pounds of supplies and scientific cargo on its ninth resupply mission to the orbiting laboratory.  Credits: NASA Television
This image, captured from NASA Television’s live coverage, shows SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft departing the International Space Station at 6:10 am EDT Friday, Aug. 26, 2016, after successfully delivering almost 5,000 pounds of supplies and scientific cargo on its ninth resupply mission to the orbiting laboratory. Credits: NASA Television

It was loaded with more than 3,000 pounds of NASA cargo and critical research samples and technology demonstration samples accumulated by the rotating six person crews of astronauts and cosmonauts living and working aboard the orbiting research laboratory.

This station based research will contribute towards NASA’s strategic plans to send astronauts on a ‘Journey to Mars’ by the 2030s.

It arrived at the station on July 20 ferrying over 2.5 tons of priceless research equipment, gear, spare parts and supplies, food, water and clothing for the station’s resident astronauts and cosmonauts as well as the first of two international docking adapters (IDAs) in its unpressurized cargo hold known as the “trunk.”

The SpaceX Dragon is captured in the grips of the Canadarm2 robotic arm. Credit: NASA TV
The SpaceX Dragon is captured in the grips of the Canadarm2 robotic arm. Credit: NASA TV

Dragon was launched on July 18 during a mesmerizing post midnight, back-to-back liftoff and landing of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in its upgraded, full thrust version.

SpaceX Falcon 9 launches and lands over Port Canaveral in this streak shot showing  rockets midnight liftoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 12:45 a.m. EDT on July 18, 2016 carrying Dragon CRS-9 craft to the International Space Station (ISS) with almost 5,000 pounds of cargo and docking port. View from atop Exploration Tower in Port Canaveral. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 launches and lands over Port Canaveral in this streak shot showing rockets midnight liftoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 12:45 a.m. EDT on July 18, 2016 carrying Dragon CRS-9 craft to the International Space Station (ISS) with almost 5,000 pounds of cargo and docking port. View from atop Exploration Tower in Port Canaveral. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The SpaceX Falcon 9 blasted off at 12:45 a.m. EDT July 18, from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and successfully delivered the Dragon CRS-9 resupply ship to its preliminary orbit about 10 minutes later.

SpaceX also successfully executed a spellbinding ground landing of the Falcon 9 first stage back at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Landing Zone 1, located a few miles south of launch pad 40.

The dramatic ground landing of the 156 foot tall Falcon 9 first stage at LZ -1 took place about 9 minutes after liftoff. It marked only the second time a spent, orbit class booster has touched down intact and upright on land.

Moments before dramatic touchdown of SpaceX Falcon 9 1st stage at Landing Zone-1 (LX-1) accompanied by sonic booms after launching Dragon CRS-9 supply ship to orbit from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida at 12:45 a.m., bound for the International Space Station (ISS).   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Moments before dramatic touchdown of SpaceX Falcon 9 1st stage at Landing Zone-1 (LX-1) accompanied by sonic booms after launching Dragon CRS-9 supply ship to orbit from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida at 12:45 a.m., bound for the International Space Station (ISS). Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The stage was set for today’s return to Earth when ground controllers robotically detached Dragon from the Earth-facing port of the Harmony module early this morning using the station’s 57.7-foot (17.6-meter) long Canadian-built robotic arm.

Expedition 48 Flight Engineers Kate Rubins of NASA and Takuya Onishi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) then used Canadarm 2 to release Dragon from the grappling snares at about 6:10 a.m. EDT (1011 GMT) this morning.

“Houston, station, on Space to Ground Two, Dragon depart successfully commanded,” radioed Rubins.

The ISS was soaring some 250 miles over the Timor Sea, north of Australia.

“Congratulations to the entire team on the successful release of the Dragon. And thank you very much for bringing all the science, and all the important payloads, and all the important cargo to the station,” Onishi said. “We feel really sad to see it go because we had a great time and enjoyed working on all the science that the Dragon brought to us.”

Dragon then backed away and moved to a safe distance from the station via a trio of burns using its Draco maneuvering thrusters.

The de-orbit burn was conducted at 10:56 a.m. EDT (1456 GMT) to drop Dragon out of orbit and start the descent back to Earth.

SpaceX contracted recovery crews hauled Dragon aboard the recovery ship and are transporting it to a port near Los Angeles, where some time critical cargo items and research samples will be removed and returned to NASA for immediate processing.

SpaceX plans to move Dragon back to the firms test facility in McGregor, Texas, for further processing and to remove the remaining cargo cache.

Among the wealth of over 3900 pounds (1790 kg) of research investigations loaded on board Dragon was an off the shelf instrument designed to perform the first-ever DNA sequencing in space and the first international docking adapter (IDA) that is absolutely essential for docking of the SpaceX and Boeing built human spaceflight taxis that will ferry our astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) in some 18 months.

During a spacewalk last week on Aug. 19, the initial docking adapter known as International Docking Adapter-2 (IDA-2) was installed Expedition 48 Commander Jeff Williams and Flight Engineer Kate Rubins of NASA.

Other science experiments on board included OsteoOmics to test if magnetic levitation can accurately simulate microgravity to study different types of bone cells and contribute to treatments for diseases like osteoporosis, a Phase Change Heat Exchanger to test temperature control technology in space, the Heart Cells experiments that will culture heart cells on the station to study how microgravity changes the human heart, new and more efficient three-dimensional solar cells, and new marine vessel tracking hardware known as the Automatic Identification System (AIS) that will aid in locating and identifying commercial ships across the globe.

The ring shaped IDA-2 unit was stowed in the Dragon’s unpressurized truck section. It weighs 1029 lbs (467 kg), measures about 42 inches tall and sports an inside diameter of 63 inches in diameter – so astronauts and cargo can easily float through. The outer diameter measures about 94 inches.

“Outfitted with a host of sensors and systems, the adapter is built so spacecraft systems can automatically perform all the steps of rendezvous and dock with the station without input from the astronauts. Manual backup systems will be in place on the spacecraft to allow the crew to take over steering duties, if needed,” says NASA.

“It’s a passive system which means it doesn’t take any action by the crew to allow docking to happen and I think that’s really the key,” said David Clemen Boeing’s director of Development/Modifications for the space station.

“Spacecraft flying to the station will use the sensors on the IDA to track to and help the spacecraft’s navigation system steer the spacecraft to a safe docking without astronaut involvement.”

CRS-9 counts as the company’s ninth of 26 scheduled flight to deliver supplies, science experiments and technology demonstrations to the International Space Station (ISS).

The CRS-9 mission was launched for the crews of Expeditions 48 and 49 to support dozens of the approximately 250 science and research investigations in progress under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.

Watch for Ken’s continuing SpaceX and CRS mission coverage where he reported onsite 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

An illustration of how the IDA will look when attached to the International Space Station. Credits: NASA
An illustration of how the IDA will look when attached to the International Space Station.
Credits: NASA
Up close view of SpaceX Dragon CRS-9 resupply ship and solar panels atop Falcon 9 rocket at pad 40 prior to blastoff to the ISS on July 18, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Up close view of SpaceX Dragon CRS-9 resupply ship and solar panels atop Falcon 9 rocket at pad 40 prior to blastoff to the ISS on July 18, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
View of International Docking Adapter 2 (IDA-2) being processed inside the Space Station Processing Facility (SSPF) at NASA Kennedy Space Center for eventual launch to the ISS in the trunk of a SpaceX Dragon on the CRS-9 mission. It will be connected to the station to provide a port for Commercial Crew spacecraft carrying astronauts to dock to the orbiting laboratory as soon as 2017.  The identical IDA-1 was destroyed during SpaceX CRS-7 launch failure on June 28, 2015.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
View of International Docking Adapter 2 (IDA-2) being processed inside the Space Station Processing Facility (SSPF) at NASA Kennedy Space Center for eventual launch to the ISS in the trunk of a SpaceX Dragon on the CRS-9 mission. It will be connected to the station to provide a port for Commercial Crew spacecraft carrying astronauts to dock to the orbiting laboratory as soon as 2017. The identical IDA-1 was destroyed during SpaceX CRS-7 launch failure on June 28, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Flawless Capture and Berthing of SpaceX Dragon Supply Ship at ISS

The SpaceX Dragon is captured in the grips of the Canadarm2 robotic arm. Credit: NASA TV
The SpaceX Dragon is captured in the grips of the Canadarm2 robotic arm. Credit: NASA TV

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Following a flawless post midnight blastoff two mornings ago, a pair of NASA astronauts executed a flawless capture of the newest SpaceX Dragon supply ship at the International Space Station early this morning, July 20, carrying 2.5 tons of priceless research equipment and gear for the resident astronauts and cosmonauts.

As the orbiting outpost was traveling 252 statute miles over the Great Lakes, NASA’s veteran Expedition 48 Commander Jeff Williams and newly arrived NASA Flight Engineer Kate Rubins used the station’s 57.7-foot (17.6-meter) Canadian-built robotic arm to reach out and capture the Dragon CRS-9 spacecraft at 6:56 a.m. EDT.

“Good capture confirmed after a two day rendezvous,” said Houston Mission Control at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, as Dragon was approximately 30 feet (10 meters) away from the station.

“We’ve captured us a Dragon,” radioed Williams.

“Congratulations to the entire team that put this thing together, launched it, and successfully rendezvoused it to the International Space Station. We look forward to the work that it brings.”

The SpaceX Dragon is seen attached to the International Space Station’s Harmony module just before orbital sunrise. Credit: NASA TV
The SpaceX Dragon is seen attached to the International Space Station’s Harmony module just before orbital sunrise. Credit: NASA TV

The events unfolded live on a NASA TV webcast for all to follow along.

Furthermore, today’s dramatic Dragon arrival coincides with a renowned day in the annuls of space history. Today coincides with the 40th anniversary of humanity’s first successful touchdown on the surface of Mars by NASA’s Viking 1 lander on July 20, 1976. It paved the way for many future missions.

And Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first humans to land on another celestial body – the Moon – on July 20, 1969 during NASA’s Apollo 11 lunar landing mission.

Williams was working from a robotics work station in the station’s domed cupola. Rubins was Williams backup. She just arrived at the station on July 9 for a minimum 4 month stay, after launching to orbit on a Russian Soyuz on July 6 with two additional crew mates.

Ground controllers then used the robotic arm to maneuver the Dragon cargo spacecraft closer to its berthing port on the Earth facing side of the Harmony module, located at the front of the station.

Some three hours after the successful grappling, Dragon was joined to the station and bolted into place for initial berthing on the Harmony module at 10:03 a.m. EDT as the station flew about 252 statute miles over the California and Oregon border.

Controllers then activated four gangs of four bolts in the common berthing mechanism (CBM) to complete the second stage capture of the latching and berthing of Dragon to the station with a total of 16 bolts to ensure a snug connection, safety and no pressure leaks.

Crew members Williams and Rubins along with Japanese astronaut Takuya Onishi are now working to install power and data cables from the station to Dragon. They plan to open the hatch tomorrow after pressurizing the vestibule in the forward bulkhead between the station and Dragon.

Dragon reached the station after a carefully choreographed orbital chase and series of multiple thruster firings to propel the cargo ship from its preliminary post launch orbit up to the massive million pound science outpost with six resident crew members from the US, Russia and Japan.

Among the 5000 pounds of equipment on board is the first of two identical docking adapters essential for enabling station dockings next year by NASA’s new commercial astronaut taxis. This mission is all about supporting NASA’s ‘Journey to Mars’ by humans in the 2030s.

Liftoff of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in its upgraded, full thrust version and the Dragon CRS-9 resupply ship took place barely 48 hours ago at 12:45 a.m. EDT Monday, July 18, from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

SpaceX Falcon 9 launches and lands over Port Canaveral in this streak shot showing  rockets midnight liftoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 12:45 a.m. EDT on July 18, 2016 carrying Dragon CRS-9 craft to the International Space Station (ISS) with almost 5,000 pounds of cargo and docking port. View from atop Exploration Tower in Port Canaveral. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 launches and lands over Port Canaveral in this streak shot showing rockets midnight liftoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 12:45 a.m. EDT on July 18, 2016 carrying Dragon CRS-9 craft to the International Space Station (ISS) with almost 5,000 pounds of cargo and docking port. View from atop Exploration Tower in Port Canaveral. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Dragon reached its preliminary orbit about 10 minutes after launch and then deployed a pair of solar arrays.

SpaceX also successfully executed a spellbinding ground landing of the Falcon 9 first stage back at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Landing Zone 1, located a few miles south of launch pad 40.

The dramatic ground landing of the 156 foot tall Falcon 9 first stage at LZ -1 took place about 9 minutes after liftoff. It marks only the second time a spent orbit class booster has touched down intact and upright on land.

Moments before dramatic touchdown of SpaceX Falcon 9 1st stage at Landing Zone-1 (LX-1) accompanied by sonic booms after launching Dragon CRS-9 supply ship to orbit from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida at 12:45 a.m., bound for the International Space Station (ISS).   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Moments before dramatic touchdown of SpaceX Falcon 9 1st stage at Landing Zone-1 (LX-1) accompanied by sonic booms after launching Dragon CRS-9 supply ship to orbit from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida at 12:45 a.m., bound for the International Space Station (ISS). Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Among the wealth of over 3900 pounds (1790 kg) of research investigations loaded on board Dragon is an off the shelf instrument designed to perform the first-ever DNA sequencing in space and the first international docking adapter (IDA) that is absolutely essential for docking of the SpaceX and Boeing built human spaceflight taxis that will ferry our astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) in some 18 months.

Other science experiments on board include OsteoOmics to test if magnetic levitation can accurately simulate microgravity to study different types of bone cells and contribute to treatments for diseases like osteoporosis, a Phase Change Heat Exchanger to test temperature control technology in space, the Heart Cells experiments that will culture heart cells on the station to study how microgravity changes the human heart, new and more efficient three-dimensional solar cells, and new marine vessel tracking hardware known as the Automatic Identification System (AIS) that will aid in locating and identifying commercial ships across the globe.

The ring shaped IDA-2 unit is stowed in the Dragon’s unpressurized truck section. It weighs 1029 lbs (467 kg), measures about 42 inches tall and sports an inside diameter of 63 inches in diameter – so astronauts and cargo can easily float through. The outer diameter measures about 94 inches.

“Outfitted with a host of sensors and systems, the adapter is built so spacecraft systems can automatically perform all the steps of rendezvous and dock with the station without input from the astronauts. Manual backup systems will be in place on the spacecraft to allow the crew to take over steering duties, if needed,” says NASA.

View of International Docking Adapter 2 (IDA-2) being processed inside the Space Station Processing Facility (SSPF) at NASA Kennedy Space Center for eventual launch to the ISS in the trunk of a SpaceX Dragon on the CRS-9 mission. It will be connected to the station to provide a port for Commercial Crew spacecraft carrying astronauts to dock to the orbiting laboratory as soon as 2017.  The identical IDA-1 was destroyed during SpaceX CRS-7 launch failure on June 28, 2015.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
View of International Docking Adapter 2 (IDA-2) being processed inside the Space Station Processing Facility (SSPF) at NASA Kennedy Space Center for eventual launch to the ISS in the trunk of a SpaceX Dragon on the CRS-9 mission. It will be connected to the station to provide a port for Commercial Crew spacecraft carrying astronauts to dock to the orbiting laboratory as soon as 2017. The identical IDA-1 was destroyed during SpaceX CRS-7 launch failure on June 28, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“It’s a passive system which means it doesn’t take any action by the crew to allow docking to happen and I think that’s really the key,” said David Clemen Boeing’s director of Development/Modifications for the space station.

“Spacecraft flying to the station will use the sensors on the IDA to track to and help the spacecraft’s navigation system steer the spacecraft to a safe docking without astronaut involvement.”

CRS-9 counts as the company’s ninth scheduled flight to deliver supplies, science experiments and technology demonstrations to the International Space Station (ISS).

The CRS-9 mission is for the crews of Expeditions 48 and 49 to support dozens of the approximately 250 science and research investigations in progress under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.

Up close view of SpaceX Dragon CRS-9 resupply ship and solar panels atop Falcon 9 rocket at pad 40 prior to blastoff to ISS on July 18, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Up close view of SpaceX Dragon CRS-9 resupply ship and solar panels atop Falcon 9 rocket at pad 40 prior to blastoff to ISS on July 18, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Dragon will remain at the station until its scheduled departure on Aug. 29 when it will return critical science research back to Earth via a parachute assisted splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off the California coast.

Watch for Ken’s continuing CRS-9 mission coverage where he reported onsite 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

SpaceX Dragon Set for ‘Return to Flight’ Launch to ISS Apr. 8 – Watch Live

A Falcon 9 rocket with a Dragon spacecraft stand at Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station before the CRS-8 mission to deliver experiments and supplies to the International Space Station.  Credits: SpaceX
A Falcon 9 rocket with a Dragon spacecraft stand at Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station before the CRS-8 mission to deliver experiments and supplies to the International Space Station. Credits: SpaceX

The SpaceX Dragon is set for its ‘Return to Flight’ mission on Friday, April 8, packed with nearly 7000 pounds (3100 kg) of critical cargo and research experiments bound for the six-man crew working aboard the International Space Station.

Blastoff of the commercial SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying the Dragon CRS-8 resupply ship is slated for 4:43 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The weather outlook looks great with a forecast of 90 percent “GO” and extremely favorable conditions at launch time of the upgraded, full thrust version of the SpaceX Falcon 9. The only concern is for winds.

The SpaceX/Dragon CRS-8 launch coverage will be broadcast on NASA TV beginning at 3:30 p.m. EDT with additional commentary on the NASA launch blog.

SpaceX also features a live webcast approximately 20 minutes before launch beginning at 4:23 p.m. EDT.

You can watch the launch live at NASA TV at – http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv

You can watch the launch live at SpaceX Webcast at – spacex.com/webcast

The launch window is instantaneous, meaning that any delays due to weather or technical issues will results in a minimum 1 day postponement.

A backup launch opportunity exists on Saturday, April 9, at 4:20 p.m. with NASA TV coverage starting at 3:15 p.m.

SpaceX most recently launched the upgraded Falcon 9 from the Cape on March 4, 2016 as I reported from onsite here.
Friday’s launch marks the first for a Dragon since the catastrophic failure of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in flight last year on June 28, 2015 on the CRS-7 resupply mission.

CRS-8 counts as the company’s eighth flight to deliver supplies, science experiments and technology demonstrations to the ISS for the crews of Expeditions 47 and 48 to support dozens of the approximately 250 science and research investigations in progress.

Also packed aboard in the Dragon’s unpressurized trunk section is experimental Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) – an experimental expandable capsule that the crew will attach to the space station. The 3115 pound (1413 kg) BEAM will test the use of an expandable space habitat in microgravity. BEAM will expand to roughly 13-feet-long and 10.5 feet in diameter after it is installed.

As a secondary objective, SpaceX will attempt to recover the Falcon 9 first stage by propulsively landing it on an ocean-going droneship barge stationed offshore in the Atlantic Ocean.

The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is an experimental expandable capsule that attaches to the space station.  Credits: Bigelow Aerospace, LLC
The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is an experimental expandable capsule that attaches to the space station. Credits: Bigelow Aerospace, LLC

Expedition 47 crew members Jeff Williams and Tim Kopra of NASA, Tim Peake of ESA (European Space Agency) and cosmonauts Yuri Malenchenko, Alexey Ovchinin and Oleg Skripochka of Roscosmos are currently living aboard the orbiting laboratory.

Dragon will reach its preliminary orbit about 10 minutes after launch. Then it will deploy its solar arrays and begin a carefully choreographed series of thruster firings to reach the space station.

After a 2 day orbital chase Dragon is set to arrive at the orbiting outpost on Sunday, April 10.

NASA astronaut Jeff Williams and ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Tim Peake will then reach out with the station’s Canadian-built robotic arm to grapple and capture the Dragon spacecraft.

Ground commands will be sent from Houston to the station’s arm to install Dragon on the Earth-facing bottom side of the Harmony module for its stay at the space station. Live coverage of the rendezvous and capture will begin at 5:30 a.m. on NASA TV, with installation set to begin at 9:30 a.m.

In a historic first, the launch of a SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft sets the stage for the first time that two American cargo ships will be simultaneously attached to the ISS. The Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo freighter launched just launched on March 22 and arrived on March 26 at a neighboring docking port on the Unity module.

The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), developed for NASA by Bigelow Aerospace, is lifted into SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft for transport to the International Space Station when the spacecraft launches at 4:43 p.m. Friday, April 8, from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) in Florida.  Credits: SpaceX
The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), developed for NASA by Bigelow Aerospace, is lifted into SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft for transport to the International Space Station when the spacecraft launches at 4:43 p.m. Friday, April 8, from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) in Florida. Credits: SpaceX

Among the new experiments arriving to the station will be Veggie-3 to grow Chinese lettuce in microgravity as a followup to Zinnias recently grown, an investigation to study muscle atrophy and bone loss in space, using microgravity to seek insight into the interactions of particle flows at the nanoscale level and use protein crystal growth in microgravity to help in the design of new drugs to fight disease, as well as reflight of 25 student experiments from Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) Odyssey II payload that were lost during the CRS-7 launch failure.

Dragon will remain at the station until it returns to Earth on May 11 for a parachute assisted splash down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California. It will be packed with numerous science samples, including those collected by 1 year crew member Scott Kelly, for return to investigators, some broken hardware for repair and some items of trash for disposal.

SpaceX CRS-8 is the eighth of up to 20 missions to the ISS that SpaceX will fly for NASA under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.

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

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about SpaceX, NASA Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, ISS, Orbital ATK, ULA, Boeing, Space Taxis, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Apr 9/10: “NASA and the Road to Mars Human Spaceflight programs” and “Curiosity explores Mars” at NEAF (NorthEast Astronomy and Space Forum), 9 AM to 5 PM, Suffern, NY, Rockland Community College and Rockland Astronomy Club – http://rocklandastronomy.com/neaf.html

Apr 12: Hosting Dr. Jim Green, NASA, Director Planetary Science, for a Planetary sciences talk about “Ceres, Pluto and Planet X” at Princeton University; 7:30 PM, Amateur Astronomers Assoc of Princeton, Peyton Hall, Princeton, NJ – http://www.princetonastronomy.org/

Apr 17: “NASA and the Road to Mars Human Spaceflight programs”- 1:30 PM at Washington Crossing State Park, Nature Center, Titusville, NJ – http://www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/washcros.html

Patch for the SpaceX CRS-8 mission to the ISS. Credit: SpaceX
Patch for the SpaceX CRS-8 mission to the ISS. Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded shortly after liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on June 28, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded shortly after liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on June 28, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Ignition and liftoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 as umbilical’s fly away from rocket carrying SES-9 satellite to orbit from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on March 4, 2016. As seen from remote camera set near rocket on launch pad 40.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Ignition and liftoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 as umbilical’s fly away from rocket carrying SES-9 satellite to orbit from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on March 4, 2016. As seen from remote camera set near rocket on launch pad 40. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Russian Space Freighter Hauling Fresh Fruit Blasts Off for ISS Crew

“Fresh fruit is on the way! Here are some of the best pics taken from @Space_Station during today’s (March 31, 2016) #Progress launch.” Credit: NASA/Jeff Williams
“Fresh fruit is on the way! Here are some of the best pics taken from @Space_Station during today’s (March 31, 2016) #Progress launch.” Credit: NASA/Jeff Williams

An unmanned Russian space freighter hauling fresh fruit and over three tons of food, water, supplies and science experiments blasted off today, Thursday, March 31, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, commencing a two-day orbital trek to the six person crew living aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

The successful nighttime liftoff of the Progress 63 cargo ship atop a three stage Soyuz 2.1a booster took place at 12:23 p.m. EDT (10:23 p.m. local time in Baikonur) from Site 31 at Baikonur as the orbiting outpost was flying about 251 miles (400 km) above northeast Iraq.

The Russian Progress 63 spacecraft launches on a Soyuz booster on a two-day trip to the International Space Station. Credit: Roscosmos
The Russian Progress 63 spacecraft launches on a Soyuz booster on a two-day trip to the International Space Station. Credit: Roscosmos

NASA astronaut and Expedition 47 crew member Jeff Williams captured several elegant views of the Progress launch from his heavenly perch on the station inside the Cupola.

“Fresh fruit is on the way! Here are some of the best pics taken from @Space_Station during today’s #Progress launch,” Williams said on his social media accounts from space.

“Today’s #Progress launch occurred about 5 minutes before we passed over the launch site in Baikonur.”

“Sunset occurred for us about a minute later and shortly after we caught site of the rocket ahead and below us from the Cupola. We continued to catch up to it until it was directly below. We saw the flash of 3rd stage ignition and the subsequent 3rd stage was spectacular. Here are some of the best shots taken from the International Space Station. (note the one taken just after the moment of engine cutoff!) Spectacular!” Williams elaborated.

The Russian Progress 63 spacecraft launch on a Soyuz booster to the International Space Station on March 31, 2016, as photographed by NASA astronaut and Expedition 47 crew member Jeff Williams from onboard the orbiting outpost.  Credit: NASA/Jeff Williams
The Russian Progress 63 spacecraft launch on a Soyuz booster to the International Space Station on March 31, 2016, as photographed by NASA astronaut and Expedition 47 crew member Jeff Williams from onboard the orbiting outpost. Credit: NASA/Jeff Williams

The Progress 63 resupply ship, also known by its Russian acronym as Progress MS-02, is due to arrive at the station on April 2 for an automated docking to the aft port of the Russian Zvezda Service Module.

After a picture perfect eight and a half minute climb to its initial orbit, the Progress MS-02 separated from the Soyuz third stage and deployed its pair of solar arrays and navigational antennas as planned.

“This was a flawless ascent to orbit for the Progress 63 cargo craft carrying just over three tons of supplies,” said NASA launch commentator Rob Navius during a live launch webcast on NASA TV. “Everything was right on the money.”

“All stages of the Soyuz booster performed to perfection.”

The planned longer two-day and 34 orbit journey rather than a faster 3 or 4 orbit rendezvous and docking is designed to help engineers test out new computer software and vehicle communications gear on this new version of the Progress.

“The two-day rendezvous for the Progress is deliberately planned to enable Russian flight controllers to test new software and communications equipment for the new vehicle configuration that will be standard for future Progress and piloted Soyuz spacecraft,” according to NASA officials.

Gantry towers surround the Progress 63 rocket at its launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Credit: RSC Energia
Gantry towers surround the Progress 63 rocket at its launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Credit: RSC Energia

Docking to the orbiting laboratory is set for approximately 2 p.m. Saturday, April 2.

NASA TV will provide live docking coverage of the Progress 63 arrival starting at 1:15 p.m. on Saturday.

Today’s Progress launch counts as the second of a constellation of three resupply ships from the US and Russia launching to the station over a three successive weeks.

The Orbital ATK ‘SS Rick Husband’ Cygnus resupply spacecraft that launched last week on Tuesday, March 22, 2016 was at the vanguard of the cargo ship trio – as I reported here from on site at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the OA-6 mission lifted off from Space Launch Complex 41 at 11:05 p.m. EDT on March 22, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the OA-6 mission lifted off from Space Launch Complex 41 at 11:05 p.m. EDT on March 22, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Cygnus was successfully berthed at the Earth-facing port of the Unity module this past Saturday, March 26 – as I reported here.

Following Progress is the SpaceX Return To Flight (RTF) mission dubbed SpaceX CRS-8.

It is slated to launch on April 8 and arrive at the ISS on April 10 for berthing to the Earth-facing port of the Harmony module – at the end of the station where NASA space shuttles formerly docked. It carries another 3.5 tons of supplies.

So altogether the trio of international cargo ships will supply over 12 tons of station supplies in rapid succession over the next 3 weeks.

This choreography will set up America’s Cygnus and Dragon resupply craft to simultaneously be present and reside attached at adjacent ports on the ISS for the first time in history.

Plans currently call for Cygnus to stay at station for approximately two months until May 20th., when it will be unbolted and unberthed for eventual deorbiting and reentry.

Progress 63 will remain at the station for six months.

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

Ken Kremer

………….

Learn more about Orion, SLS, ISS, NASA Mars rovers, Orbital ATK, ULA, SpaceX, Boeing, Space Taxis, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Apr 9/10: “NASA and the Road to Mars Human Spaceflight programs” and “Curiosity explores Mars” at NEAF (NorthEast Astronomy and Space Forum), 9 AM to 5 PM, Suffern, NY, Rockland Community College and Rockland Astronomy Club – http://rocklandastronomy.com/neaf.html

Apr 12: Hosting Dr. Jim Green, NASA, Director Planetary Science, for a Planetary sciences talk about “Ceres, Pluto and Planet X” at Princeton University; 7:30 PM, Amateur Astronomers Assoc of Princeton, Peyton Hall, Princeton, NJ – http://www.princetonastronomy.org/

Apr 17: “NASA and the Road to Mars Human Spaceflight programs”- 1:30 PM at Washington Crossing State Park, Nature Center, Titusville, NJ – http://www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/washcros.html

Cygnus Commercial Space Freighter Arrives at Space Station with 3.5 Tons of Supplies

Orbital ATK Cygnus CRS-6/OA-6 space freighter arrives for capture and berthing at the International Space Station on Saturday, March 26, 2016 at 6:51 a.m. EDT.  Credit: NASA/ESA/Tim Peake
Orbital ATK Cygnus CRS-6/OA-6 space freighter arrives for capture and berthing at the International Space Station on Saturday, March 26, 2016 at 6:51 a.m. EDT. Credit: NASA/ESA/Tim Peake

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Following a perfectly executed three day orbital rendezvous, NASA astronaut and Expedition 47 Commander Tim Kopra successfully reached out with the International Space Station’s robotic arm, Canadarm2, grabbed hold and captured Orbital ATK’s commercial Cygnus cargo freighter at 6:51 a.m. EDT, this morning, Saturday, March 26, 2016.

The ISS and Cygnus were soaring some 250 miles (400 kilometers) over the Indian Ocean at the time of capture following the cargo crafts blastoff atop a two stage United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V at 11:05 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, March 22, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.

Robotics officers on the ground in Houston working with the station crew high above then maneuvered Cygnus – holding over 3.5 tons of critical cargo supplies and science – into position for final installation and berthing to the orbiting laboratory’s Earth-facing port on the Unity module a few hours later. It was finally bolted fully into place at approximately 10:52 a.m. EDT.

Orbital ATK Cygnus CRS-6/OA-6 space freighter arrives for capture and berthing at the International Space Station on Saturday, March 26, 2016 at 6:51 a.m. EDT. Credit: NASA TV
Orbital ATK Cygnus CRS-6/OA-6 space freighter arrives for capture and berthing at the International Space Station on Saturday, March 26, 2016 at 6:51 a.m. EDT. Credit: NASA TV

This Cygnus is named the S.S. Rick Husband in honor of Col. Rick Husband, the late commander of Space Shuttle Columbia, which was tragically lost with its crew of seven NASA astronauts during re-entry on its final flight on Feb. 1, 2003.

The crew plans to open the hatch to the SS Rick Husband tomorrow morning on Easter Sunday, March 26.

The Orbital ATK Cygnus CRS-6 space freighter is loaded with 3513 kg (7700 pounds) of science experiments and hardware, crew supplies, spare parts, gear and station hardware for the orbital laboratory in support of over 250 research experiments being conducted on board by the Expedition 47 and 48 crews.

A computer overlay with engineering data provides video of the Canadarm2 robotic arm maneuvering to capture the Orbital ATK Cygnus OA-6 space freighter on Saturday, March 26, 2016 at 651 a.m. EDT. Credit: NASA TV
A computer overlay with engineering data provides video of the Canadarm2 robotic arm maneuvering to capture the Orbital ATK Cygnus OA-6 space freighter on Saturday, March 26, 2016 at 651 a.m. EDT. Credit: NASA TV

All of Cygnus maneuvers were “executed to perfection for a flawless approach and rendezvous” after the three day trip from Florida to the ISS, as the vehicle closed in to within a few meters for grappling, said NASA commentator Rob Navius.

NASA TV showed spectacular HD views of Cygnus and its UltraFlex solar arrays – deployed 2 hours after launch – from station and robotic arm cameras during the final approach operation, as flight controllers closely monitored all spacecraft systems.

“The crew is ready for Cygnus approach to the capture point,” radioed Kopra.

“Station you are go for capture,” Mission Control radioed back.

Cygnus was placed into free drift mode before capture to prevent any accidental perturbations in the final seconds.

From his robotics work station in the Cupola, Kopra then put the arm in motion by about 6:40 a.m. EDT, during the final phase of the final approach. He extended the 57 foot long (19 meter long) arm to reach out and grab the aft end of Cygnus cargo craft at its grappling pin by closing the snares on the end effector.

ESA astronaut Tim Peake served as backup for arm operations while NASA astronaut Jeff Williams monitored Cygnus systems.

The SS Rick Husband was rock steady during its capture as the station was flying over South Africa and the Indian Ocean.

“Capture confirmed,” reported Navius just moments before the video downlink was temporarily lost as the station communications moved between satellites.

“Excellent work gentleman. Much appreciated. Made that look easy,” radioed Jeremy Hansen, a Canadian Space Agency astronaut from Houston mission control.

“We’d also like to say we are really honored to bring aboard the SS Rick Husband to the International Space Station,” radioed Kopra. “He was a personal hero to many of us. This will be the first Cygnus honoree who was directly involved with the construction of this great station.”

A Cygnus cargo spacecraft named the SS Rick Husband  is being prepared inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center for upcoming Orbital ATK CRS-6/OA-6 mission to deliver hardware and supplies to the International Space Station. The Cygnus is scheduled to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A Cygnus cargo spacecraft named the SS Rick Husband is being prepared inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for upcoming Orbital ATK CRS-6/OA-6 mission to deliver hardware and supplies to the International Space Station. The Cygnus is scheduled to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

It took about 9 minutes to complete the approach from the 30 meter distant hold point to the final capture point where the SS Rick Husband Cygnus arrived at about 6:37 am EDT. NASA TV showed the grapple fixture gradually coming into view.

Cygnus approached precisely within the center of the approach corridor, said Peake, during continuing updates as the ship moved closer to the targeted berthing port. It was perfectly aligned for its capture point.

Cygnus grapple fixture is located at the bottom end of the vehicles service module, beside the thruster.

Kopra and Peake are spending their 103rd day on the station today. While Williams arrived just 8 days ago.

All burns to get to the initial rendezvous point in the keep out sphere 250 meters away were “right on the money. Every burn has been on course and on target, said NASA JSC commentator Navius in Houston, as Cygnus soared some 400 km over the Pacific.

“Everything has gone off without a hitch. A rock solid approach.”

Flight controllers in Houston and Orbital ATK’s Dulles control headquarters then gave the go ahead to resume moving and approach closer to the 30 meter hold point.

The actual berthing operation took place about an hour later than expected to double check that everything was precisely aligned and communications were fully established.

Controllers used the arm to move Cygnus in for capture. They commanded four gangs of four bolts to latch Cygnus to the common berthing mechanism (CBM) on the internally positioned Unity modules nadir or Earth-facing port.

The first and second stage captures were successfully completed by 10:52 a.m. EDT this morning, marking the official hard mating of Cygnus and the station.

When the ISS Expedition 47 crew members open the hatch, they will be greeted with a sign noting the spacecraft was named SS Rick Husband in honor of the STS-107 mission commander.

Orbital ATK #Cygnus mated to Unity module at 10:52 a.m.  EDT (2:52 p.m. UTC). Graphic shows location of five spacecraft at station now.  Credit: NASA
Orbital ATK #Cygnus mated to Unity module at 10:52 a.m. EDT (2:52 p.m. UTC). Graphic shows location of five spacecraft at station now. Credit: NASA

The SS Rick Husband Cygnus is actually at the vanguard of a “constellation” of three resupply ships arriving at the station over a three week period of three weekends.

Next comes the Russian Progress 63 which will dock at Russia’s Zvezda module next weekend after launching this Thursday from site 31 at Kaszakhstan carrying another three tons of supplies.

Following Progress is the SpaceX Return To Flight (RTF) mission dubbed SpaceX CRS-8.

It is slated to launch on April 8 and arrive at the ISS on April 10 for berthing to the Earth-facing port of the Harmony module – at the end of the station where NASA space shuttles formerly docked. It carries another 3.5 tons of supplies.

So altogether the trio of international cargo ships will supply over 12 tons of station supplies in rapid succession over the next 3 weeks.

This choreography will set up America’s Cygnus and Dragon resupply craft to simultaneously be present and reside attached at adjacent ports on the ISS for the first time in history.

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V launch vehicle lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying a Cygnus resupply spacecraft on the Orbital ATK CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Liftoff was at 11:05 p.m. EDT on March 22, 2016.  The spacecraft will deliver 7,500 pounds of supplies, science payloads and experiments.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V launch vehicle lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying a Cygnus resupply spacecraft on the Orbital ATK CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Liftoff was at 11:05 p.m. EDT on March 22, 2016. The spacecraft will deliver 7,500 pounds of supplies, science payloads and experiments. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Plans currently call for Cygnus to stay at station for approximately two months until May 20th, when it will be unbolted and unberthed for eventual deorbiting and reentry.

But first it will stay on orbit for about another eight days, said Orbital ATK’s Cygnus program manager Frank DeMauro in an interview with Universe Today.

After unberthing, Cygnus will be used to conduct several experiments including the Saffire-1 experiment, it will deploy nanosats from an externally mounted carrier, and the REBR experiment will monitor the burn-up of Cygnus during the fiery reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere, said DeMauro.

Orbital ATK’s attention then shifts to the next Cygnus launch on the Return to Flight, or RTF, mission of the firms Antares rocket from NASA Wallops on the eastern shore of Virginia.

OA-6 is only the second Cygnus to be launched atop a ULA Atlas V rocket, following the OA-4 mission last December.

The CRS-6/OA-6 flight is also the second flight of the enhanced Cygnus variant, that is over 1 meter longer and sports 50% more volume capability.

Thus it is capable of carrying a much heavier payload of some 3500 kg (7700 lbs) vs. a maximum of 2300 kg (5070 lbs) for the standard version.

Watch for Ken’s onsite launch reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and continuing mission reports.

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

Ken Kremer

Video caption: Mobius video camera placed at Florida launch pad captures blastoff up close of Orbital ATK OA-6 (CRS-6) mission riding to orbit atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22, 2016 at 11:05 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

First American to Live on ISS for 3 Long Missions Arrives after Soyuz Night Launch and Docking

The Soyuz TMA-20M rocket launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Saturday, March 19, 2016 carrying Expedition 47 Soyuz Commander Alexey Ovchinin of Roscosmos, Flight Engineer Jeff Williams of NASA, and Flight Engineer Oleg Skripochka of Roscosmos into orbit to begin their five and a half month mission on the International Space Station.  Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani
The Soyuz TMA-20M rocket launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Saturday, March 19, 2016 carrying Expedition 47 Soyuz Commander Alexey Ovchinin of Roscosmos, Flight Engineer Jeff Williams of NASA, and Flight Engineer Oleg Skripochka of Roscosmos into orbit to begin their five and a half month mission on the International Space Station. Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

The first American to become a three-time, long-term resident of the International Space Station (ISS) has just arrived at the orbiting outpost this evening, Friday, March 18 after blasting off with two Russian crewmates in a Soyuz spacecraft barely six hours ago and successfully completing a fast-track four orbit rendezvous.

NASA astronaut Jeff Williams rocketed to orbit aboard the Soyuz TMA-20M spacecraft with Russian cosmonauts Alexey Ovchinin and Oleg Skripochka of the Russian space agency Roscosmos.

The Russian-American trio vaulted off from the historic Launch Pad 1 at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Saturday, March 19, 2016 at 5:26 p.m. EST (3:26 a.m. Saturday, March 19, Baikonur time). Its the same pad from which Yuri Gagarin blasted to orbit in 1961 to become the world’s first human to travel to space.

Williams, Ovchinin and Skripochka reached the orbiting laboratory at 11:09 p.m. and successfully docked at the Poisk module approximately 250 miles (400 km) above the Southern Pacific Ocean off the western coast of Peru, after today’s flawless launch and rendezvous with the station.

They conducted a fly around maneuver of the ISS with the Soyuz to line up with the Poisk module at a distance of about 400 meters some 10 minutes before docking. Spectacular cameras views were transmitted from the Soyuz and ISS during the final approach and docking.

#Soyuz camera spots station. Crew begins flyaround before 11:11p ET docking to Poisk module on Mar. 18, 2016.  Credit: Roscosmos
#Soyuz camera spots station. Crew begins flyaround before 11:11p ET docking to Poisk module on Mar. 18, 2016. Credit: Roscosmos

“The crew is now firmly affixed to the space station,” radioed NASA mission control, after the hooks and latches were engaged to complete a hard dock and mate to the station.

Here’s a video of the spectacular overnight launch:

Their mission aboard the space station will last for nearly six months.

Overall this will be Williams fourth space mission, including three Soyuz trips and one Space Shuttle trip to space. During Expedition 47, Williams will set a new record for cumulative time in space by an American of 534 days.

Williams has already spent 362 days in space. He will thus surpass the recent American record for time in space set by NASA astronaut and Expedition 46 Commander Scott Kelly.

With the arrival of the new trio, the station is restored to its full complement of six crewmates and marks the start of the full Expedition 47 mission, with an international crew of astronauts and cosmonauts from America, Russia and England.

The three join Expedition 47 Commander Tim Kopra of NASA and Flight Engineers Tim Peake of ESA (European Space Agency) and Yuri Malenchenko of Roscosmos.

The Soyuz TMA-20M rocket launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Saturday, March 19, 2016 carrying Expedition 47 Soyuz Commander Alexey Ovchinin of Roscosmos, Flight Engineer Jeff Williams of NASA, and Flight Engineer Oleg Skripochka of Roscosmos into orbit to begin their five and a half month mission on the International Space Station. (Photo Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)
The Soyuz TMA-20M rocket launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Saturday, March 19, 2016 carrying Expedition 47 Soyuz Commander Alexey Ovchinin of Roscosmos, Flight Engineer Jeff Williams of NASA, and Flight Engineer Oleg Skripochka of Roscosmos into orbit to begin their five and a half month mission on the International Space Station. (Photo Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)

The combined efforts of the six person crew are aimed at advancing NASA’s plans for sending humans on a ‘Journey to Mars’ in the 2030s.

They also follow on and continue the research investigations of the recently concluded mission of the first ever ‘1 Year ISS crew’ comprising of Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko who returned to Earth on March 1 after 340 days in space.

After the docking probe was removed and leak checks completed, the hatches between the ships were opened at 1:15 a.m. EDT on Sat. March 19.

The new Expedition 47 crew members will conduct more than 250 science investigation in fields that benefit all of humanity, such as biology, Earth science, human research, physical sciences and technology development, during their six month mission.

Many of these research experiments for both Expeditions 47 and 48 will be launched to the ISS just three days from now, when the next commercial Cygnus cargo freighter lifts off on the commercial resupply servives-6 (CRS-6) flight.

The science studies “include a study of realistic fire scenarios on a spacecraft, enable the first space-based observations of meteors entering Earth’s atmosphere from space, explore how regolith, or soil, behaves and moves in microgravity, test a gecko-inspired adhesive gripping device that can stick on command in the harsh environment of space, and add a new 3-D printer for use on station,” according to NASA officials.

The Orbital ATK CRS-6 mission with over 3500 kg of supplies and science experiments will be carried to orbit by a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on Tuesday, March 22.

Inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, a Cygnus cargo spacecraft is being prepared for the upcoming Orbital ATK Commercial Resupply Services-6 mission to deliver hardware and supplies to the International Space Station. The Cygnus was named SS Rick Husband in honor of the commander of the STS-107 mission. On that flight, the crew of the space shuttle Columbia was lost during re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003. The Cygnus is scheduled to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, a Cygnus cargo spacecraft is being prepared for the upcoming Orbital ATK Commercial Resupply Services-6 mission to deliver hardware and supplies to the International Space Station. The Cygnus was named SS Rick Husband in honor of the commander of the STS-107 mission. On that flight, the crew of the space shuttle Columbia was lost during re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003. The Cygnus is scheduled to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX plans to launch its next cargo Dragon to the station on April 8, the first since a launch catastrophe on June 28, 2015 ended in failure. The SpaceX-8 mission is scheduled to carry the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM). It is an experimental inflatable and expandable module that astronauts will enter.

In between, Russia will launch a Progress resupply ship with three tons of supplies, food and experiments.

Watch for Ken’s onsite Atlas/Cygnus launch reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

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

Ken Kremer

………….

Learn more about Orbital ATK Cygnus, ISS, ULA Atlas rocket, SpaceX, Boeing, Space Taxis, Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Mar 21/22: “Orbital ATK Atlas/Cygnus launch to the ISS, ULA, SpaceX, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evening Mar 21 /late afternoon Mar 22