Merry Christmas From Space 2016

All six members of the Expedition 50 crew aboard the International Space Station celebrated the holidays together with a festive meal on Christmas Day, Dec. 25, 2016  Image Credit: NASA
All six members of the Expedition 50 crew aboard the International Space Station celebrated the holidays together with a festive meal on Christmas Day, Dec. 25, 2016. Image Credit: NASA

As we celebrate the Christmas tidings of 2016 here on Earth, a lucky multinational crew of astronauts and cosmonauts celebrate the festive season floating in Zero-G while living and working together in space aboard the Earth orbiting International Space Station (ISS) complex – peacefully cooperating to benefit all humanity.

Today, Dec. 25, 2016, the six person Expedition 50 crew of five men and one woman marked the joyous holiday of Christ’s birth by gathering for a festive meal in space – as billions of Earthlings celebrated this Christmas season of giving, remembrance and peace to all here on our home planet.

This year is an especially noteworthy Space Christmas because it counts as Expedition 50. This is the 50th crew to reside on board since the space station began operating with permanent occupancy by rotating crews all the way back to 1998.

The Expedition 50 crew currently comprises of people from three nations supporting the ISS – namely the US, Russia and France; Commander Shane Kimbrough from NASA and flight engineers Andrey Borisenko (Roscosmos), Sergey Ryzhikov (Roscosmos), Thomas Pesquet (ESA), Peggy Whitson (NASA), and Oleg Novitskiy (Roscosmos).

Here a short video of holiday greetings from a trio of crew members explaining what Christmas in Space means to them:

Video Caption: Space Station Crew Celebrates the Holidays Aboard the Orbital Lab. Aboard the International Space Station, Expedition 50 Commander Shane Kimbrough and Peggy Whitson of NASA and Thomas Pesquet of the European Space Agency discussed their thoughts about being in space during the holidays and how they plan to celebrate Christmas and New Year’s in a downlink. Credit: NASA

“Hello from the Expedition 50 Crew! We’d like to share what Christmas means to us,” said Expedition 50 Commander Shane Kimbrough.

“For me it’s a lot about family,” said Expedition 50 Commander Shane Kimbrough. “We always travel to meet up with our family which is dispersed across the country. And we go home to Georgia and Florida … quite abit to meet up. Always a great time to get together and share with each other.”

“Although its typically thought of a season to get things, we in our family think about the giving aspect. Giving of our many talents and resources. Especially to those less fortunate.”

Kimbrough arrived on the complex in October, followed a month later by Whitson and Pesquet in November.

They were all launched aboard Russian Soyuz capsules from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Aboard the International Space Station, Expedition 50 Flight Engineer Peggy Whitson of NASA sent holiday greetings and festive imagery from the cupola on Dec. 18, 2016. Credit: NASA.
Aboard the International Space Station, Expedition 50 Flight Engineer Peggy Whitson of NASA sent holiday greetings and festive imagery from the cupola on Dec. 18, 2016. Credit: NASA.

And Peggy Whitson especially has a lot to celebrate in space!

Because not only is Whitson currently enjoying her third long-duration flight aboard the station – as an Expedition 50 flight engineer. Soon she will become the first woman to command the station twice ! That momentous event happens when she assumes the role of Space Station Commander early in 2017 during the start of Expedition 51.

“In addition to family, there is another very important aspect to being on the ISS,” said Whitson.

“That is seeing the planet as a whole. It actually reinforces I think, that fact that we should live as one people and strive for peace.”

“I second the comments already made. I grew up in a family of 25 cousins,” said ESA’s Thomas Pesquet. “The only time we could catch up was around Christmas time…. So I always looked forward to that, although this year I can’t be with them of course … and will think of them.”

“I am making the most of this opportunity to look at the Earth. Reflect about what Christmas means to us as individuals and to the world in general. And we will have a good time on board the ISS and share a Christmas meal together.”

Aboard the International Space Station, Expedition 50 Flight Engineer Peggy Whitson of NASA sent holiday greetings and festive imagery from the Japanese Kibo laboratory module on Dec. 18, 2016. Credit: NASA
Aboard the International Space Station, Expedition 50 Flight Engineer Peggy Whitson of NASA sent holiday greetings and festive imagery from the Japanese Kibo laboratory module on Dec. 18, 2016. Credit: NASA

The crew is enjoying a light weekend of work and a day off tomorrow, Dec. 26.

After that they begin preparing for a pair of spacewalks in the new year by Kimbrough and Whitson – scheduled for Jan. 6 and 13. The crew is checking the spacesuits by testing the water among other activities.

The goal of the excursions is to “complete the replacement of old nickel-hydrogen batteries with new lithium-ion batteries on the station’s truss structure,” says NASA.

Research work also continues.

“Whitson, who is spending her second Christmas in space, and Pesquet drew blood, urine and saliva samples for the Fluid Shifts study. That experiment investigates the upward flow of body fluids in space potentially causing lasting vision changes in astronauts.”

NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson floats through the Unity module aboard the International Space Station. On her third long-duration flight aboard the station, Whitson will become the first woman to command the station twice when she assumes the role during Expedition 51. Credit: NASA

Among other activities, the crew is also unloading 4.5 tons of internal and external cargo, gear and fresh food – including six lithium-ion batteries – from Japan’s sixth H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV-6), which recently arrived at the ISS on Dec 13.

The next regular US cargo delivery is likely to be in March 2017, when an unmanned Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo freighter is slated to launch on a ULA Atlas V from Cape Canaveral. A Cygnus was also launched on a ULA Atlas V in March 2016.

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. Cygnus is scheduled to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/

SpaceX also hopes to resume Dragon cargo launches sometime in the new year after they resolve the issues that led to the destruction of a SpaceX Falcon 9 on Sept. 1 during fueling operations at pad 40 on the Cape.

Meanwhile Roscosmos continues to investigate the causes of the failed launch of the unmanned Russian Progress 65 resupply ship on Dec. 1 due to a 3rd stage anomaly.

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

Ken Kremer

Can A Mega-Magnetic Field Protect Astronauts From Radiation?

A bunch of people really, really want to go to the Red Planet on the proposed one-way Mars One trip; more than 1,000 applicants are being considered in Round 2 selections. They will face, however, more radiation during their journey that could put them at higher risk of cancers down the road. While the solution could be to add more shielding to a spacecraft, that’s both heavy and expensive.

Enter the alternative: a magnetic field. A group calling itself the EU Project Space Radiation Superconductive Shield says their technology will “solve the issue of radiation protection in three years” and is seeking academic collaborations to make that happen. Here’s how it will work:

“The SR2S superconducting shield will provide an intense magnetic field, 3,000 times stronger than the Earth’s magnetic field and will be confined around the space craft,” a press release states.

“The magnetic fields will extend to about 10 metres in diameter and ionizing particles will be deflected away. Only the most energetic particles will penetrate the superconducting shield, but these will contribute the least to the absorbed radiation dose as their flux is negligible. This will address the issue of suitability of people for space travel as it will open up eligibility for space travel regardless of gender.”

That last bit refers to some radiation guidelines highlighted a few months ago. Peggy Whitson, a veteran NASA astronaut, said publicly that women fly far fewer hours in space than men. That’s because space authorities apply lower “lifetime” radiation limits to females (for biological reasons, which you can read more about here).

The project team includes participation from the Italian National Institute of Nuclear Physics, General Company For Space (CGS SpA), Columbus Superconductor SpA, Thales Alenia Space – Italia S.p.A., the French Commission of Atomic Energy and Alternative Energies, and the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).

“We have already made significant progress since the beginning of the project and believe we will succeed in this goal of solving the radiation protection issue,” stated Roberto Battiston, who leads the project and is also a professor of experimental physics at the University of Trento in Italy. The project started a year ago.

“In the last few months, the international teams working at CERN have solved two major technical issues relevant to the superconducting magnets in space (i) how to make very long high temperature superconducting cables join together in a shorter segment without losing the superconducting properties and (ii) how to ensure protection of long high temperature cables from a quench.”

More information on the project is available at its website. What do you think of their idea? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

Peggy Whitson: A Heroine of Science and Technology


This post is part of Ada Lovelace Day, which is a worldwide effort to get as many people as possible to blog about a heroine of science or technology. Ada was a mathematician who lived in the 1800’s who created the first computer program. Yep — you read correctly — a computer in the 1800’s. It was actually a device called an analytical engine, which was an important step in the history of computers. You can read more about Ada and Ada Lovelace Day here.

The person I chose to write about is a goddess of both science AND technology. She is a biochemist and an astronaut. She was the first science officer on board the International Space Station and later become the first female commander of the ISS. She helped get some of the initial science programs going on the on the space station, and as commander oversaw a period of one of the biggest expansions for the station, coordinating the additions of European and Japanese laboratory modules. Her name is ….

Dr. Peggy Whitson

Perhaps I have always been drawn to Whitson because she grew up in a rural, agricultural environment, as I did. But I have always found Whitson to be endearing because of her easygoing and friendly personality. But yet, she must be almost a “slave-driver” and perfectionist when it comes to her work. During her expeditions on the ISS, Whitson earned a reputation for high achievement, which prompted mission planners to assign the crew extra work every day. NASA called it “The Peggy Factor.”

“We account for the fact that Peggy is going to do things more efficiently, and that she likes to work some on her time off, and so she’ll accomplish more,” said NASA deputy station project manager Kirk Shireman.

Whitson works with a science glove box on board the ISS. Credit: NASA

First some the details about Whitson: she graduated from Iowa Wesleyan College in 1981, and received her doctorate in biochemistry from Rice University in 1985. She worked as a Welch Postdoctoral Fellow before joining NASA in 1986.

From 1989 to 1993, Whitson was a research biochemist for NASA. During that time, she also served as an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the University of Texas and Rice University. In 1995, she became co-chair of a combined American and Russian working group, and a year later she was named an astronaut candidate.

Whitson flew her first space mission in 2002 as a flight engineer to the International Space Station as part of the Expedition 5 crew. While there, then NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe gave her the title of first NASA Science Officer. Of course, she took some ribbing about being like “Spock,” the science officer on the original Star Trek, but she came to enjoy using the phrase “Live Long and Prosper.” During that mission she performed 21 experiments in human life science, microgravity sciences and commercial payloads.

During her second stint on the station, Expedition-16 in 2007-2008, she was named the commander.

I could go on about her accomplishments, but perhaps even better would be to let Whitson herself tell about her experiences in space. During her stays on the ISS, she wrote “letters home” to family and friends, answering questions and sharing details of her days in space.

Here’s what she had to say about doing science on the ISS:

I set up the first experiment inside the microgravity sciences glovebox this week. Tomorrow, I will do the powered checkouts of the glovebox and the next day start up the experiment. It is ssssoooo cool, getting to do science in space!!! This week we are also doing the urine collections for the renal stone investigation…and while I suspect this won’t be especially fun to collect the samples, I do think it’s one of the best experiments (I am biased, of course, since it is my experiment!).

In reading her letters, I found it interesting that she did amateur astronomy while on board the space station!:

One evening, I had dimmed the lights inside the module so that I could better watch the Earth/stars. I watched the sun set as we moved into the shadow of the Earth. I was pleasantly surprised a few min later to see a half-moon rise into view from behind the Earth. As the stars started popping into view, I was surprised again, as I saw a satellite pass by above us, looking so much like one of the other stars, but moving across the field of “constant” stars. I had never thought about the fact that I could, as one of those satellites, actually see another! And then I saw a second! Amazing.

Whitson during an EVA at the ISS. Credit: NASA

Whitson has conducted six spacewalks. Here’s how she described her first one:

My first look, as I poked my head out the hatch, was amazing! I previously compared the view of being in space to having lived in semidarkness for several years and having someone turn on the lights. Well, the view from my helmet, continuing the same analogy, would be like going outside on a sunny, clear day after having lived in semidarkness for years! If it gets better than this, I’m not sure my mind would be able to comprehend it!

And in this letter home, she waxes poetically about seeing Earth from space. She also talks about how people on Earth can watch for the ISS in the night sky, which is something that I love to do, and so it was interesting to read her perspective on that as well:

Although all the views of our planet are incredible and varied from our viewpoint up here on the Station, with the colors, textures, and lighting changing as we orbit…the most impressive view is the curve of the planet at the horizon. That curve is the special place where it is possible to see the layers of atmosphere extend beyond the surface to meet with the blackness of space beyond. Relative to the size of the Earth, it seems impossibly thin, less than a finger-width. The atmosphere carries all the shades of blue in that thin band, closest to the planet a glowing blue, like sunlit water over white sand, extending to the deepest blue-purple mixture that holds the blackness at bay.

As the night-side of the planet slips by beneath me, it carries on the fringes of darkness the colors of a sunset on the clouds below. The Station is still lit by the sun, despite the fact that we have already crossed the terminator between day and night below us. This is the timeframe when Station is most visible to folks on the ground, just before their dawn or after their dusk. A small bit of sunlight reflected off of our structure, illuminates us moving across their darkened sky. As the terminator approaches the horizon, the sun shows a blinding face that burns the atmosphere with molten reds and oranges before seemingly melting itself into the darkness, leaving a royal blue line that dissipates more slowly as the stars come out from hiding. Less than an hour passes before our path around the planet brings us back to the royal blue curve, signaling sunrise, as the process reverses itself. I am sure that after I return, I will again miss watching the curve of the Earth.

You can read more of Whitson’s letters home here.

Whitson’s ride home from space after Expedition 16 was more dramatic than expected. A malfunction made the Soyuz enter Earth’s atmosphere at a steeper angle than normal and the crew experienced “ballistic” descent at eight times the force of Earth-normal gravity. But, thankfully, everything turned out OK.

Whitson is currently chief of NASA’s astronaut office at Johnson Space Center.

Sources: Official NASA Astronaut bio, Orlando Sentinel

“Suits and Ties” Collaborate on Successful Space Station Repair


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Original News Source: NASA TV

Happy Holidays in Space


NASA is encouraging Earthlings to send a holiday greeting to the members of Expedition 16 on board the International Space Station. NASA’s Homepage contains a link to send your holiday good wishes to the crew with pre-made e-postcards. The sentiment is nice, however the cards seem a little backwards.

One e-card has a picture of the ISS with a caption that says “The View From 220 Miles Up,” while another displays a waving EVA astronaut saying “Wish You Were Here.” These cards are supposed to be to the crew and from Earth, so perhaps more appropriate might be a picture of a snowy holiday scene or a majestic Earth landscape with the caption “Wish You Were Here, But Glad You Are Up There Furthering the Advances of Human Spaceflight.”

But take this opportunity to express yourself to the ISS crew.

And now on to more pressing news from the ISS:

Space shuttle Atlantis’ STS-122 mission to the space station has now been delayed to no earlier than January 10, 2008.

“Moving the next launch attempt of Atlantis to Jan. 10 will allow as many people as possible to have time with family and friends at the time of year when it means the most,” said shuttle Program Manager Wayne Hale. “A lot has been asked of them this year and a lot will be asked of them in 2008.”

Additionally, it gives engineers more time to understand the engine cutoff sensor problem that has kept the shuttle on the ground. An original launch of Dec. 6 was scrubbed when the sensors failed in a routine test during fueling of the shuttle’s external tank. The problem re-occurred in subsequent tanking test during countdown on Dec. 9, which caused NASA officials to decide to delay the launch until after the first of the year.

STS-122 will bring the Columbus science module to the station, the European Space Agency’s major contribution to the ISS. In addition to conducting three spacewalks to outfit the new science module, shuttle astronauts would also have done a fourth EVA to inspect a troublesome solar array rotary joint on the ISS’s power-providing solar panels that is contaminated with metallic shavings.

So instead ISS astronauts Peggy Whitson and Dan Tani will do that inspection on a spacewalk on Tuesday, December 18 starting at 6:00am EST. They will also look at another more recent power system problem that could be the result of a micrometeoroid or debris impact. On Dec. 8, two circuit breakers tripped, possibly the result of a space debris impact that might have damaged the mechanism that allows power and data to flow through the rotary joint used to turn the array about its axis.

For the SARJ problem, the starboard SARJ is locked in place because of excessive vibration and the metallic shavings and “bearing race ring” damage that were discovered during a quick inspection during the last shuttle mission. The SARJ has two drive gears and two redundant drive motors.

Whitson and Tani could install new bearings on the undamaged race ring and reposition the motors. The other option is to clean up the contamination and fix whatever is causing the problem.

“Once they have more data, they can make a better assessment of which of those approaches we should do, whether we should clean up the current race ring or just shift over,” ISS Commander Peggy Whitson said in a news conference from the station on Thursday morning. “I think either one’s doable,” she continued. “To me, in my mind, I think it would be probably, from an astronaut’s perspective, easier to just shift to the other race ring rather than trying to clean it up. But we don’t know yet how easy that’s going to be to clean up.”

Kirk Shireman, deputy manager of the space station program at the Johnson Space Center, said in a later news conference that no decisions will be made until engineers have more information about what might be causing the problem. The port-side solar arrays and that SARJ is operating normally.

“The idea is, we’ll conduct the EVA right now, the SARJ inspection and the BGA inspection, and we’ll learn what we need to learn,” Shireman said. “Then we’ll find the most opportune time to go fix it, not only the BGA but hopefully the SARJ. It really depends on how our analysis comes out. We’ll figure out exactly how long we can go with the BGA locked and the SARJ restrictions we have in place.”

Back to some holiday frivolity, since Tani would have returned to Earth with the STS-122 crew, which was originally scheduled to return home around the 19th of December, he wasn’t supposed to be on board the ISS during Christmas. Reporters inquired about his change of holiday plans and how gift arrangements were being handled. When asked, Commander Whitson declined to answer if all Tani would be receiving from her would be a lump of coal, saying she didn’t want to give away the surprise.

The astronauts said they have been hoarding foods like smoked turkey and other holiday-type goodies, saving them for Christmas dinner, so it appears that Atlantis and STS-122 were supposed to deliver the holiday meal. However a Progress re-supply ship will be docking with the ISS on Christmas Day, and one of the first things to be unpacked are hamburgers and fresh tomatoes and lettuce. Since fresh foods are a rare commodity on board the station, an All-American burger will be a welcome holiday treat for the crew.

Expedition 16 has also recorded a holiday message to Earth. Watch it here

Original News Source: NASA Press Release, NASA TV