Russia Just Tested an Anti-Satellite Weapon

The United States and Russia/USSR have been adversaries for a long time. Their heated rivarly stretches back to the waning days of WW2, when the enormous Red Army was occupying large swathes of eastern Europe, and the allies recognized the inherent threat.

The Cold War followed, when the two nations aimed an absurd number of nuclear warheads at each other. Then came the Space Race, when both nations vied for the prestige of making it to the Moon.

The US won that race, but the rivalry didn’t cool down.

Continue reading “Russia Just Tested an Anti-Satellite Weapon”

Russian Cosmonaut says that the Hole in the ISS was Drilled From the Inside

Back in August, the crew of the International Space Station (ISS) was surprised to learn that a leak was responsible for a slight loss in air pressure aboard the station. After investigating, they learned that the cause was a small hole in the Russian Soyuz spacecraft that had docked with the ISS. While the hole was promptly sealed, the cause of it has remained a mystery ever since.

To determine a possible cause, and inspect the external hole on the spacecraft, the crew of Expedition 57 conducted an “unprecedented spacewalk” on Dec. 11th. After collecting samples from the outside of the craft, flight engineers Oleg Kononenko and Sergey Prokopyev concluded that the hole had been drilled from inside the capsule, a finding which raises even more questions.

Continue reading “Russian Cosmonaut says that the Hole in the ISS was Drilled From the Inside”

Soyuz Launch Carrying Two Astronauts is Forced to Abort, Landing Safely Back on Earth

Soyuz MS-10 shortly after launch, but before the failure. The craft executed an emergency ballistic landing and both crew members are safe. Image: NASA

The Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft carrying crew to the ISS was aborted shortly after launch on Thursday, Oct. 11th when its booster failed. The spacecraft executed an emergency ballistic landing with a sharp angle of descent. Both crew members on board—American astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin—exited the capsule safely and are in good condition.

Continue reading “Soyuz Launch Carrying Two Astronauts is Forced to Abort, Landing Safely Back on Earth”

Russia Says They’ll Be Pitching in on the Deep Space Gateway

Artist illustration of Habitation Module. Credit: Lockheed Martin

In Spring of 2017, NASA revealed their plans for what the massive Space Launch System (SLS) rocket would be used for: to build the Deep Space Gateway, a space station in cis-lunar orbit that’ll serve as a stepping stone to the exploration of the Solar System. Until today, it was assumed that this would be a NASA project, with the agency constructing the station over the course of several launches of the SLS from 2021 through 2026, delivering the 4 major modules. The details were hazy, though, with the various components in development with various contractors.

Artist's impression of the Deep Space Gateway, currently under development by Lockheed Martin. Credit: NASA
Artist’s impression of the Deep Space Gateway. Credit: NASA

Today, however, NASA and the Russian Space Agency Roscosmos announced that they’ll be building the Deep Space Gateway together. They signed an agreement in Australia at the 68th International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, and announced the news to the world.

What will Russia be contributing? According to TASS, Russian officials said that they’d be providing one to three modules for the station, as well as the docking mechanism that spacecraft would use when approaching the station. Russia also offered to carry some of the station parts on their new super heavy lift rocket. They didn’t specify the rocket, but that sounds like the Angara rocket which is in development, and is expected to make its first flights over the next few years.

The Deep Space Gateway will serve as the primary destination for NASA’s human space exploration efforts, once the SLS and Orion Crew Module are completed. The first launch of SLS will carry an unmanned Orion capsule on a trans-lunar flight in 2018. Then SLS will be used to blast the Europa Clipper off to the Jovian system. Their original strategy was to launch some time between 2021 and 2023 carrying the Solar Power Electric Bus module to the station, followed by the Habitation Module in 2024, the Logistics Module in 2025 and finally the Airlock Module in 2026.

At this point, NASA has solicited proposals from various aerospace contractors for the development of the Power Module, and Habitation System, and they didn’t indicate that Russia’s involvement would have any impact on the construction of these modules.

With the Russians announcing their involvement, we don’t really know how this’ll impact the structure of the station or its configuration of modules. This might also be an incentive for other space agencies (like the newly announced Australian Space Agency) to come on board.

Of course, the Russians were involved in the construction of the International Space Station. They provided the Zarya module for propulsion and navigational guidence, then the Zvezda for living quarters, and the Pirs, Poisk and Rassvet docking modules. They’ve also provided half the support of the station, including astronauts, and provide the only way to get humans up to the station, on their Soyuz rockets. Until recently, Russia had been threatening to pull their support of the International Space Station, before it was ready for retirement. But earlier this year, they agreed to support ISS until 2024, and even to 2028 if necessary. They’ve also been continuing work on their Multi-Purpose Laboratory Module (MLM), which was originally planned for launch in 2007, and is now expected to be attached to the station some time in 2018.

Before announcing their involvement with the Deep Space Gateway, Russia had said that they’d probably be investing in the development of their own orbital space station once the ISS mission was over. They’re also apparently working on a robotic lunar orbiter and lander mission.

This isn’t the only announcement involving the Deep Space Gateway. It might also get a solar sail. Engineers from the Canadian Space Agency proposed attaching a small solar sail to the Gateway, which could serve in re-orienting the space station without needing propellant. It would have a surface area of about 50-meters, and would save hundreds of kilograms of hydrozine fuel which would normally be used over the lifespan of the Deep Space Gateway. Check out Anatoly Zak’s excellent reporting on this development for the Planetary Society.

More information: TASS, Interfax

Russian-American Trio Blasts Off and Boards International Space Station After Fast Track Trajectory

The Soyuz MS-06 rocket blasts off with the Expedition 53-54 crew towards the International Space Station from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017 (Wednesday, Sept. 13, Kazakh time). Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Barely a week and a half after the thrilling conclusion to the record breaking space endurance mission by NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, a new Russian-American trio blasted off for the International Space Station (ISS) on a Russian Soyuz capsule and boarded safely early this morning Wednesday, Sept. 13, after arriving as planned on a fast track orbital trajectory.

NASA astronauts Mark Vande Hei, Joe Acaba and Alexander Misurkin of Roscosmos launched aboard the Soyuz MS-06 spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan overnight at 5:17 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017, (2127 GMT), or 3:17 a.m. Baikonur time Wednesday, Sept. 13, on the Expedition 53 mission.

Following the flawless launch and achieving orbit the three man crew executed a perfect four orbit, six hour rendezvous and arrived at the orbiting laboratory complex at 10:55 p.m. EDT Tuesday, Sept. 12, (or Wednesday, Sept. 13, Kazakh time) where they will carry out a jam packed schedule of scientific research in a wide array of fields.

The entire launch sequence aboard the Soyuz rocket performed flawlessly and delivered the Soyuz capsule to its targeted preliminary orbit eight minutes and 45 seconds after liftoff followed by the opening of the vehicles pair of life giving solar arrays and communications antennas.

The whole event from launch to docking was broadcast live on NASA TV.

Soyuz reached the ISS after a rapid series of orbit raising maneuvers over four orbits and six hours to successfully complete all the rendezvous and docking procedures to attach to the station at the Russian Poisk module.

“Contact! We have mechanical contact,” radioed Misurkin.

The Soyuz MS-06 spacecraft carrying NASA astronauts Mark Vande Hei and Joe Acaba and cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin of Roscosmos is seen on the right approaching the International Space Station on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017. The spacecraft docked to the station at 10:55 p.m. EDT. Credits: NASA Television

After conducting leak and safety checks the new trio opened the hatches between the Soyuz spacecraft and station at 1:08 a.m. EDT this morning, Sept. 13 and floated into the million pound orbiting outpost.

The arrival of Vande Hei, Acaba and Misurkin restores the station’s multinational habitation to a full complement of six astronaut and cosmonaut crewmembers.

They join Expedition 53 Commander Randy Bresnik of NASA and Flight Engineers Sergey Ryazanskiy of Roscosmos and Paolo Nespoli of ESA (European Space Agency).

The station had been temporarily reduced to a staff of three for 10 days following the departure of the Expedition 52 crew including record setting Whitson, NASA astronaut Jack Fischer and veteran cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin of Roscosmos.

This is the rookie flight for Vande Hei, the second for Misurkin and the third for Acaba. They will remain aboard the station for a planned five month long ISS expedition continuing into early 2018.

Vande Hei was selected as an astronaut in 2009. Misurkin previously flew to the station on the Expedition 35/36 increments in 2013. Acaba was selected as an astronaut in 2004. He flew on space shuttle mission STS 119 and conducted two spacewalks – as well as on the Expedition 31/32 increments in 2012 and has logged a total of 138 days in space.

Originally the Soyuz MS-06 was only to fly with a two person crew – Vande Hei and Misurkin after the Russians decided to reduce their cosmonaut crew from three to two to save money.

Acaba was added to the crew only in March of this year when NASA and Roscosmos brokered an agreement to fill the empty seat with a NASA astronaut, under an arrangement worked out for 5 astronauts seats on Soyuz through a procurement by Boeing, as compensation for an unrelated matter.

The Russian cosmonaut crew cutback enabled Whitson’s mission extension by three months and also proved to be a boon for NASA and science research. It enabled the US/partner USOS crew complement to be enlarged from three to four full time astronauts much earlier than expected.

This allowed NASA to about double the weekly time devoted to research aboard station – a feat not expected to happen until America’s commercial crew vehicles, namely Boeing Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon – finally begin inaugural launches next year from the Kennedy Space Center in mid-2018.

With Acaba and Vande Hei now on orbit joining Bresnik and Nespoli, the USOS crew stands at four and will continue.

The six crewmembers will carry out research supporting more than 250 experiments in astrophysics, biology, biotechnology, physical science and Earth science.

“During Expedition 53, researchers will study the cosmic ray particles, demonstrate the benefits of manufacturing fiber optic filaments in microgravity, investigate targeted therapies to improve muscle atrophy and explore the abilities of a new drug to accelerate bone repair,” says NASA.

Among the key investigations involves research on cosmic ray particles reaching Earth using ISS-CREAM, examining effects on the musculoskeletal system and exploring targeted therapies for slowing or reversal of muscle atrophy with Rodent Research 6 (RR-6), demonstrating the benefits of manufacturing fiber optic filaments in a microgravity environment with the Optical Fiber Production in Microgravity (Made in Space Fiber Optics) hardware, and working on drugs and materials for accelerating bone repair with the Synthetic Bone experiment to develop more effective treatments for patients with osteoporosis.

Expedition 53 Flight Engineers Mark Vande Hei and Joe Acaba of NASA and Soyuz Commander Alexander Misurkin of Roscosmos launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017 (Wednesday, Sept. 13, Kazakh time), and arrived at the International Space Station at 10:55 p.m. to begin their 5.5-month mission aboard the station. Credits: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Bresnik, Ryazanskiy and Nespoli are scheduled to remain aboard the station until December. Whereas Vande Hei, Acaba and Misurkin are slated to return in February 2018.

Watch this cool Roscosmos video showing rollout of the Soyuz rocket to the Baikonur launch pad and erection in advance of launch. Credit: Roscosmos

Meanwhile one of the first tasks of the new trio will be to assist with the departure of the SpaceX Dragon CRS-12 spacecraft upcoming this Sunday, Sept 17.

Dragon will be detached from the Harmony module using the stations Canadian-built robotic arm on Sunday and released for a splashdown and retrieval in the Pacific Ocean Sunday morning. It is carrying some hardware items as well as scores of science samples.

SpaceX launched its 12th resupply mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 12:31 p.m. EDT on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/

NASA TV will cover the release activities beginning Sunday at 4:30 a.m. EDT.

Visiting vehicle configuration at the International Space Station (ISS) after arrival of the Soyuz MS-06 spacecraft on Sept. 12, 2017. Credit: NASA

Watch for Ken’s onsite space mission reports 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.

The space station’s Expedition 53 crew members are (from left) Joe Acaba, Alexander Misurkin, Mark Vande Hei, Sergey Ryazanskiy, Commander Randy Bresnik and Paolo Nespoli. Credit: NASA

Expedition 53 Crew Insignia

NASA’s Peggy Whitson Safely Returns Home in Soyuz from Record Breaking Stay in Space

The Soyuz MS-04 vehicle is pictured the moment it touches down with the Expedition 52 crew inside comprising NASA astronauts Peggy Whitson and Jack Fisher and Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin of Roscosmos on Sept. 3, 2017, Kazakhstan time. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

NASA’s Peggy Whitson, America’s most experienced astronaut, returned to Earth safely and smiling Sunday morning on the steppes of Kazakhstan, concluding her record-breaking stay in space aboard the International Space Station (ISS) along with Soyuz crewmates Jack Fischer of NASA and Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin of Roscosmos.

The multinational trio touched down softly on Earth inside their Soyuz MS-04 descent capsule on Saturday evening, Sept. 2 at 9:21 p.m. EDT (shortly after sunrise 7:21 a.m. Kazakhstan time, Sept. 3), some 90 miles southeast of the remote town of Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan.

Whitson wrapped up a 288-day extended mission in obviously good health that began in November 2016, spanning 122.2 million miles and 4,623 orbits of Earth – completing her third long-duration stay on the orbiting science outpost spanning Expeditions 50, 51 and 52.

“A flawless descent and landing,” said NASA commentator Rob Navias during the live NASA TV coverage of the return of the ISS Expedition 52 crew Saturday afternoon and evening US time.

“The crew is back on Earth safe and sound.”

NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin of Roscosmos, and NASA astronaut Jack Fischer undergo routine initial medical checks after returning from their mission aboard the International Space Station at 9:21 p.m. EDT Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017 (7:21 a.m. Kazakhstan time, Sunday, Sept. 3), landing southeast of the remote town of Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan. Credits: NASA TV

She has now accrued a total of 665 days in space – more than any American astronaut – over the course of her illustrious career during which she set multiple U.S. space records spanning a total of three spaceflights.

Whitson’s 665 total accumulated days in space places her eighth on the all-time space endurance list – just 8 days behind her Russian crewmate and Soyuz Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin who now ranks 7th on the all-time list with 673 days in space on his five flights. She has exceeded the endurance record of her next closest NASA competitor by 131 days – namely NASA astronaut Jeff Williams.

The remarkable 57-year-old Ph.D biochemist by training has spent nearly 2 years of her entire life in space and she holds several other prestigious records as well – including more accumulated time in space than any other woman and the longest single spaceflight by a women – 288 days!

During this mission Whitson became the first woman to serve twice as space station commander. Indeed in 2008 Whitson became the first woman ever to command the space station during her prior stay on Expedition 16 a decade ago. Her second stint as station commander this mission began earlier this year on April 9.

Whitson also holds the record for the most spacewalks and the most time spent spacewalking by a female astronaut. Altogether she has accumulated 60 hours and 21 minutes of EVA time over ten spacewalks -ranking her third most experienced in the world.

Notably Soyuz Commander Yurchikhin ranks fourth in spacewalking experience. Only Russia’s Anatoly Solovyev and NASA’s Michael Lopez-Alegria have more spacewalking time to their credit.

NASA’s Jack Fischer completed his rookie spaceflight accumulating 136 days in space aboard the ISS.

Astronaut Peggy Whitson is pictured May 12, 2017, during the 200th spacewalk at the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

Whitson originally launched to the ISS on Nov 17, 2016 aboard the Russian Soyuz MS-03 spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, as part of the three person Expedition 50 crew including flight engineers Oleg Novitskiy of Roscosmos and Thomas Pesquet of ESA (European Space Agency).

Her flight was unexpectedly extended in flight after the Russian government decided to cut back on the number of space station crew cosmonauts this year from three to two to save money. Thus a return seat became available on this Soyuz MS-04 return flight after NASA negotiated an extension with Rosmoscos in April enabling Whitson to remain on board the orbiting outpost an additional three months beyond her than planned June return home.

Whitson’s mission extension proved to be a boon for NASA and science research enabling the US/partner USOS crew complement to be enlarged from three to four full time astronauts much earlier than expected. This allowed NASA to about double the weekly time devoted to research aboard station – a feat not expected to happen until America’s commercial crew vehicles, namely Boeing Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon – finally begin inaugural launches next year from the Kennedy Space Center in mid-2018.

NASA Astronaut Peggy Whitson after safe return to Earth on Sept. 2, 2017 ET. Credit: NASA

Descending dramatically while hanging below a single gigantic orange-and-white parachute the scorched Russian Soyuz vehicle fired its braking rockets just moments before touchdown in Kazakhstan to cushion the crew for a gentle landing under beautifully sunny skies.

A live NASA TV video feed captured the thrilling descent for over 14 minutes after the main parachute deployed all the way to the ground under clear blue sunny Sunday morning weather conditions and comfortably local Kazakh temperatures of 77 degrees F.

“Everything today went in perfect fashion from the undocking, to the deorbit burn to landing,” said Navias. “It went by the book with no issues.”

“We saw a spectacular 14 minute long live video of the Soyuz descent and landing.”

The Soyuz MS-04 carrying NASA astronauts Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer and Fyodor Yurchikin of Roscosmos back to Earth from the International Space Station touched down at at 9:21 p.m. EDT Saturday, Sept. 2 (7:21 a.m. Kazakhstan time, Sunday, Sept. 3), southeast of the remote town of Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan. Credits: NASA TV

Russian search and recovery forces quickly arrived via a cluster of MI-8 helicopters after the soft landing to begin their normal procedures to extract the three Expedition 52 crew members from their cramped Soyuz descent module.

Soyuz Commander Yurchikhin in the center seat was hauled out first, followed by Fischer in the left side seat and lastly Whitson in the right seat. All 3 were placed on reclining seats sitting side by side and appeared quite well, conversing and speaking via satellite phones.

A group of Russian and US medical teams were on hand to check the astronauts and cosmonauts health and help the crewmates begin readapting to the tug of Earth’s gravity they have not experienced after many months of weightlessness in space.

Whitson’s final planned news conference from space with the media to sum up her experiences this past Wednesday had to be cancelled due to the catastrophic flooding events from Hurricane Harvey impacting Houston and elsewhere in Texas – including Mission Control which was forced to close multiple days.

The crews had bid their final farewells earlier and closed the hatches between the Soyuz and station at 2:40 p.m. EDT Saturday.

After conducting final spacecraft systems checks the trio unhooked the latches and undocked from the International Space Station at 5:58 p.m. EDT to begin their voyage home through the scorching heats of reentry in the Earth’s atmosphere that reached over 2500 degrees F (1400 degrees C) on the outside.

“While living and working aboard the world’s only orbiting laboratory, Whitson and Fischer contributed to hundreds of experiments in biology, biotechnology, physical science and Earth science, welcomed several cargo spacecraft delivering tons of supplies and research experiments, and conducted a combined six spacewalks to perform maintenance and upgrades to the station,” said NASA.

“Among their scientific exploits, Whitson and Fischer supported research into the physical changes to astronaut’s eyes caused by prolonged exposure to a microgravity environment. They also conducted a new lung tissue study that explored how stem cells work in the unique microgravity environment of the space station, which may pave the way for future stem cell research in space.”

“Additional research included an antibody investigation that could increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy drugs for cancer treatment, and the study of plant physiology and growth in space using an advanced plant habitat. NASA also attached the Cosmic Ray Energetics and Mass Investigation (ISS CREAM) on the outside of the space station in August, which is now observing cosmic rays coming from across the galaxy.”

Astronaut Peggy Whitson signs her autograph near an Expedition 50 mission patch attached to the inside the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

ISS Expedition 53 began at the moment of undocking from the space station, now under the command of veteran NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik since the official change of command ceremony on Friday.

Along with his crewmates Sergey Ryazanskiy of Roscosmos and Paolo Nespoli of ESA (European Space Agency), the three-person crew will operate the station for the next 10 days until the imminent arrival of three new crew members.

The station will get back to a full complement of six crewmembers after the upcoming Sept. 12 launch and fast track 4 orbit 6 hour docking of NASA astronauts Mark Vande Hei and Joe Acaba of NASA and Alexander Misurkin of Roscosmos aboard the next Soyuz MS-06 spacecraft departing from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan.

Meanwhile the next launch from the Kennedy Space Center is slated for this Thursday, Sept.7 is the SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying the USAF X-37B OTV-5 military mini-shuttle to low Earth orbit -detailed here.

Peggy Whitson set the record on Sept. 2, 2017, for most cumulative days living and working in space by a NASA astronaut at 665 days. Credit: NASA

Expedition 52 Flight Engineer Peggy Whitson of NASA, Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin of the Russian space agency Roscosmos and Flight Engineer Jack Fischer of NASA float through the Harmony module of the International Space Station. Credits: NASA

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite X-37B OTV-5 and NASA mission reports 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

Soyuz has split into 3 modules 139.8 km above Earth. Crew parachutes to landing inside Descent Module at 9:22 pm ET Sept. 2, 2017. Credit: NASA

Expedition 52 crew returns to Earth Sept. 2, 2017. Credit: NASA

Peggy Whitson @AstroPeggy is 3rd place all-time for cumulative spacewalk time with 10 spacewalks totaling 60 hours, 21 minutes. Credit: NASA

Soyuz Launches and Fast Track Docks to ISS with Russian-American Duo

The Soyuz MS-04 rocket launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan April 20, 2017, carrying Expedition 51 Soyuz Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin of Roscosmos and Flight Engineer Jack Fischer of NASA into orbit to begin their four and a half month mission on the International Space Station. Credits: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – A new Russian/American duo has arrived at the International Space Station this morning, April 20, after a six-hour flight following their successful launch aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule on a fast track trajectory to the orbiting outpost.

The two person international crew comprising NASA astronaut Jack Fischer and cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin of the Russian space agency Roscosmos launched aboard a Russian Soyuz MS-04 spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 3:13 a.m. (1:13 p.m. Baikonur time).

After orbiting the Earth just four times on a planned accelerated trajectory they reached the station six hours later and safely docked at the station at 9:18 a.m. EDT.

“We have contact and capture confirmed at the space station at 9:18 am EDT,” said the NASA Houston mission control commentator.
The station and Soyuz vehicles were flying some 250 mi (400 km) over the northern Atlantic at the time of docking.

The dynamic duo of Yurchikhin and Fischer join three Expedition 51 crew members already onboard – Expedition 51 Commander Peggy Whitson of NASA and Flight Engineers Oleg Novitskiy of Roscosmos and Thomas Pesquet of ESA (European Space Agency).

Thus the overall station crew complement of astronauts and cosmonauts increases to five – from the US, Russia and France – representing their respective space agencies and countries.

Jack Fisher is a rookie space flyer whereas Yurchikhin is an accomplished veteran on this his 5th mission to orbit.

Expedition 51 Soyuz Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin of Roscosmos and Flight Engineer Jack Fischer of NASA wave farewell prior to boarding the Soyuz MS-04 spacecraft for launch April 20, 2017, at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Credits: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

Prior to docking the crew accomplished an approximately 10 min flyaround inside the Soyuz shortly before sunrise and beautyfully backdropped by earth towards the end at a distance of roughly several hundred meters away.

All Soyuz systems performed as planned for what was an entirely automated rendezvous and docking using the Russian KURS docking system. The crew could have intervened if needed.

The new pair of Expedition 51 crew members will spend about four and a half months aboard the station during their increment.

They will be very busy conducting approximately 250 science investigations in fields such as biology, Earth science, human research, physical sciences and technology development.

And there will be no time to rest! Because this week’s just launched unpiloted ‘SS John Glenn’ Cygnus resupply ship is eagerly awaiting its chance to join the station and deliver nearly 4 tons of science experiment, gear and crew provisions to stock the station and further enhance its research output.

Orbital ATK’s seventh Cygnus cargo delivery flight to the station – dubbed OA-7 or CRS-7 – launched at 11:11 a.m. EDT Tuesday, April 18 atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Orbital ATK’s seventh cargo delivery flight to the International Space Station -in tribute to John Glenn- launched at 11:11 a.m. EDT April 18, 2017, on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/

The SS John Glenn is expected to arrive at the station early Saturday morning on April 22.
Expedition 51 astronauts Thomas Pesquet of ESA and Peggy Whitson of NASA will use the space station’s Canadian-built robotic arm to grapple Cygnus, about 6:05 a.m. Saturday.

They will use the arm to maneuver and berth the unmanned vehicle to the Node-1 Earth-facing nadir port on the Unity module.

“Investigations arriving will include an antibody investigation that could increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy drugs for cancer treatment and an advanced plant habitat for studying plant physiology and growth of fresh food in space,” says NASA.

“Another new investigation bound for the U.S. National Laboratory will look at using magnetized cells and tools to make it easier to handle cells and cultures, and improve the reproducibility of experiments. Cygnus also is carrying 38 CubeSats, including many built by university students from around the world, as part of the QB50 program. The CubeSats are scheduled to deploy from either the spacecraft or space station in the coming months.”

Cygnus will remain at the space station for about 85 days until July before its destructive reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, disposing of several thousand pounds of trash.

Watch for Ken’s onsite 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

Space Station Trio Touches Down on Earth as NASA’s Next Cargo Ship Targets Apr. 18 Blastoff

Expedition 50 Commander Shane Kimbrough of NASA, and Flight Engineers Sergey Ryzhikov and Andrey Borisenko of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, touched down southeast of the remote town of Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan at 7:20 a.m. EDT April 10, 2017 in their Soyuz MS-02 spacecraft. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Comings and goings continue apace on the International Space Station! After living and working fruitfully for six months in space aboard the ISS, an international trio of astronauts and cosmonauts including NASA’s Shane Kimbrough departed the orbiting lab complex aboard their Soyuz capsule and plummeted back safely through the Earth’s atmosphere to a soft touchdown in Kazahkstan on Monday- as NASA meanwhile targets liftoff of the next US resupply ship a week from today.

These are busy times indeed with regular flights to low Earth orbit and back to maintain and enhance the scientific research aboard the multinationally built and funded million pound orbiting outpost.

ISS Expedition 50 came to a glorious end for Commander Shane Kimbrough of NASA and Flight Engineers Sergey Ryzhikov and Andrey Borisenko of the Russian space agency Roscosmos as they returned to Earth Monday, April 10 in Kazakhstan aboard their Soyuz spacecraft after spending 173 days aloft in the weightless environment of space.

With his return to Earth April 10, 2017, from a mission aboard the International Space Station, NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough now has spent 189 days in space on two flights. Credits: NASA TV

The Russian Soyuz MS-02 capsule touched down safely by making a parachute assisted landing in Kazakhstan at approximately 7:20 a.m. EDT (5:20 p.m. Kazakhstan time).

The three person crew comprising Kimbrough, Ryzhikov and Andrey Borisenko landed southeast of the remote town of Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan.

Meanwhile as the trio were landing, NASA is targeting launch of the next commercial cargo ship for blastoff on April 18 with more than three tons of science and supplies to stock the station for the Expedition 51 crew.

Christened the ‘S.S. John Glenn’ to honor legendary NASA astronaut John Glenn – the first American to orbit the Earth back in February 1962 – the next Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo ship heading to the space station will launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Liftoff of the S.S. John Glenn from NASA commercial cargo provider Orbital ATK on their seventh commercial resupply services mission to the ISS is slated for 11 a.m. EDT Tuesday, April 18.

John Glenn was selected as one of NASA’s original seven Mercury astronauts chosen at the dawn of the space age in 1959. He recently passed away on December 8, 2016 at age 95.

The Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft named for Sen. John Glenn, one of NASA’s original seven astronauts, stands inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida behind a sign commemorating Glenn on March 9, 2017. Launch slated for April 18, 2017 on a ULA Atlas V. Credit: Ken Kremer/

During their time in orbit, the Expedition 50 crew members contributed to hundreds of experiments in biology, biotechnology, physical science and Earth science aboard the world-class orbiting laboratory.

“For example, the Microgravity Expanded Stem Cells investigation had crew members observe cell growth and other characteristics in microgravity. Results from this investigation could lead to the treatment of diseases and injury in space, and provide a way to improve stem cell production for medical therapies on Earth,” said NASA.

“The Tissue Regeneration-Bone Defect study, a U.S. National Laboratory investigation sponsored by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) and the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command, studied what prevents vertebrates, such as rodents and humans, from regenerating lost bone and tissue, and how microgravity conditions impact the process. Results will provide a new understanding of the biological reasons behind a human’s inability to regrow a lost limb at the wound site, and could lead to new treatment options for the more than 30 percent of the patient population who do not respond to current options for chronic, non-healing wounds.”

The Soyuz MS-02 spacecraft is seen as it lands with Expedition 50 Commander Shane Kimbrough of NASA and Flight Engineers Sergey Ryzhikov and Andrey Borisenko of Roscosmos near the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan on Monday, April 10, 2017 (Kazakh time). Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Kimbrough, Ryzhikov and Andrey Borisenko served as members of the Expedition 49 and 50 crews onboard the International Space Station during their 173 days in orbit.

During two flights Kimbrough has now amassed 189 days in space. During his two flights Borisenko now totals 337 days in space. Rookie Ryzhikov logged 173 days in space.

They leave behind another trio of crewmates who will continue as Expedition 51; namely NASA astronaut and new station commander Peggy Whitson, Oleg Novitskiy of Roscosmos and Thomas Pesquet of ESA (European Space Agency).

The next manned Soyuz launch will carry just two crewmembers. Due to Russian funding cutbacks only 1 cosmonaut will launch. The crew comprises Jack Fischer of NASA and Fyodor Yurchikhin of Roscosmos. They are scheduled to launch Thursday, April 20 from Baikonur, Kazakhstan.

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

Ken Kremer

Russia Recruiting For Its Moon Bound Cosmonauts


Roscosmos has certainly come a long way in the past few decades. After facing an uncertain future in the 1990s, the federal space agency has rebounded to become a major player in space and a crucial partner in the International Space Station. And in the coming years, Roscosmos hopes to expand its reach further, with missions planned to the Moon and even Mars.

Towards this end, on Tuesday, March 14th, the agency announced that it is conducting a recruitment drive for new cosmonauts. All are welcome, the agency stressed, to apply to become the next-generation of space explorers (provided they meet the criteria). And if all goes as planned, a few lucky applicants will be the first members of the Russian space program to “fly to the Moon.”

Understandably, Roscosmos is hoping to jump start its space exploration program again and recapture the momentum it enjoyed during the Soviet Era. In addition to Sputnik and sending the first man and woman into space (as part of the Vostok program), the Soviet space program also produced a reusable spacecraft by the 1980s that was similar to the Space Shuttle (known as the Buran program).

Rollout and Erection of Vostok 1, the flight that took the first man (Yuri Gagarin) into space on April 12th, 1961. Credits:

Unfortunately, with budget cuts during this decade and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, several changes had to be made. For one, Roscosmos needed to turn to commercial satellite launches and space tourism in order to make up the difference in its funding. In addition, some observers have cited how Russia’s financial commitment to  the ISS has had a detrimental effect on other programs.

It is little wonder then why Russian wants to embark on some serious missions in the coming decades, ones which will reestablish it as a leader in space exploration. Intrinsic to this is a proposed crewed mission to the Moon, which is scheduled to take place in 2031. Roscosmos has also been developing the next-generation spacecraft that will replace the Soyuz-TMA, which has been the workhorse of the space program since the Soviet era.

Known as the the Federatsiya (Federation) capsule, this vehicle is scheduled to make its first crewed flight to space sometime in 2023 from the Vostochny cosmodrome in the Russian far east. As you can see from the images, it bears a striking resemblance to the Orion capsule. Unveiled at the 12th International Aviation and Space Salon in Moscow (MAKS-2015), this capsule will carry the first Russian cosmonauts to the Moon.

All they need now is fresh blood to make the journey. Hence why they are conducting their first recruitment drive in five years, which is the second drive to be is open to all people – not just military pilots, but also those working in the space industry. This time around, Roscosmos is looking for 6 to 8 new recruits who will train in how to fly the next-generation spaceships and make Russia’s long-awaited lunar landing.

The Federatsiya crew capsule being unveiled at the 12th International Aviation and Space Salon in Moscow. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Roscosmos

As Sergei Kiralyov (Roscosmos’ Executive Director of Manned Programs) was quoted by RIA Novosti as saying, “There will be no discrimination based on skin colour or gender.” The criteria for these applicants include an age limit of 35, a height of between 1 m 50 cm – 1 m 90 cm (4’11” and 6’2″), and a weight of no more than 90 kilograms (~198 pounds).

The criteria also stress physical fitness, and claim that applicants must be able to cross-country ski for 5 km (~3 mi). They must also pass a series of psychological and physical tests (which include gynaecological examinations for women). In terms of skills, Roscosmos is seeking individuals who have an engineering degree, pilot training, experience in the aviation industry, and IT skills. Knowledge of a foreign language is also a plus (other than Russian, of course!).

“Recruitment of cosmonauts will take place starting from today, March 14, will take place before the end of the year. The results would be summed up in the end of December,” said Roscosmos’ First Deputy Director General Alexander Ivanov. Roscosmos also stressed that all those who are interested must apply by post or in person at the Star City astronaut training center outside Moscow (with three passport-sized photos included).

So if you speak Russian, are interesting in becoming part of the next-generation of cosmonauts, meet the requirements, or just want to go to the Moon, you might want to consider throwing your hat into the ring! Down the road, Roscosmos also has plans to conduct crewed missions to Mars between 2040 and 2060. These are expected to take place only after missions to the Moon are complete, which may include the creation of a lunar outpost.

Further Reading:, AFP

What is the International Space Station?

After the historic Apollo Missions, which saw humans set foot on another celestial body for the first time in history, NASA and the Russian Space Agency (Roscosmos) began to shift their priorities away from pioneering space exploration and began to focus on developing long-term capabilities in space. In the ensuing decades (from the 1970s to 1990s), both agencies began to build and deploy space stations, each one bigger and more complex than the last.

The latest and greatest of these is the International Space Station (ISS), a scientific facility that resides in Low-Earth Orbit around our planet. This space station is the largest and most sophisticated orbiting research facility ever built, and is so large that it can actually be seen with the naked eye. Central to its mission is the idea of fostering international cooperation for the sake of advancing science and space exploration.


Planning for the ISS began in the 1980s and was based in part on the successes of Russia’s Mir space station, NASA’s Skylab, and the Space Shuttle Program. This station, it was hoped, would allow for the future utilization of  low-Earth Orbit and its resources, and serve as an intermediate base for renewed exploration efforts to the Moon, mission to Mars, and beyond.

The Mir space station hangs above the Earth in 1995 (photo taken by the mission crew of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, STS-71). Credit: NASA

In May of 1982, NASA established the Space Station task force, which was charged with created a conceptual framework for such a space station. In the end, the ISS plan that emerged was a culmination of several different plans for a space station – which included NASA’s Freedom and the Soviet’s Mir-2 concepts, as well as Japan’s Kibo laboratory, and the European Space Agency’s Columbus laboratory.

The Freedom concept called for a modular space station to be deployed to orbit, where it would serve as the counterpart to the Soviet Salyut and Mir space stations. That same year, NASA approached the Japanese Aerospace and Exploration Agency (JAXA) to participate in the program with the creation of the Kibo, also known as the Japanese Experiment Module.

The Canadian Space Agency was similarly approached in 1982 and was asked to provide robotic support for the station. Thanks to the success of the Canadarm, which was an integral part of the Space Shuttle Program, the CSA agreed to develop robotic components that would assist with docking, perform maintenance, and assist astronauts with spacewalks.

In 1984, the ESA was invited to participate in the construction of the station with the creation of the Columbus laboratory – a research and experimental lab specializing in materials science. Construction of both Kibo and Columbus were approved of in 1985. As the most ambitious space program in either agency’s history, the development of these laboratories was seen as central to Europe and Japan’s emerging space capability.

Skylab, America’s First manned Space Station. Photo taken by departing Skylab 4 crew in Feb. 1974. Credit: NASA

In 1993, American Vice-President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin announced that they would be pooling the resources intended to create Freedom and Mir-2. Instead of two separate space stations, the programs would be working collaboratively to create a single space station – which was later named the International Space Station.


Construction of the ISS was made possible with the support of multiple federal space agencies, which included NASA, Roscosmos, JAXA, the CSA, and members of the ESA – specifically Belgium, Denmark, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, and Sweden. The Brazilian Space Agency (AEB) also contributed to the construction effort.

The orbital construction of the space station began in 1998 after the participating nations signed the Space Station Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA), which established a legal framework that stressed cooperation based on international law. The participating space agencies also signed the Four Memoranda of Understandings (MoUs), which laid out their responsibilities in the design, development and use of the station.

The assembly process began in 1998 with the deployment of the ‘Zarya’ (“Sunrise” in Russian) Control Module, or Functional Cargo Block. Built by the Russians with funding from the US, this module was designed to provide the station’s initial propulsion and power. The pressurized module – which weighed over 19,300 kg (42,600 pounds) – was launched aboard a Russian Proton rocket in November 1998.

On Dec. 4th, the second component – the ‘Unity’ Node – was placed into orbit by the Space Shuttle Endeavour (STS-88), along with two pressurized mating adapters. This node was one of three – Harmony and Tranquility being the other two – that would form the ISS’ main hull. On Sunday, Dec. 6th, it was mated to Zarya by the STS-88 crew inside the shuttle’s payload bay.

The next installments came in the year 2000, with the deployment of the Zvezda Service Module (the first habitation module) and multiple supply missions conducted by the Space Shuttle Atlantis.  The Space Shuttle Discovery (STS-92) also delivered the stations third pressurized mating adapted and a Ku-band antenna in October. By the end of the month, the first Expedition crew was launched aboard a Soyuz rocket, which arrived on Nov. 2nd.

In 2001, the ‘Destiny’ Laboratory Module and the ‘Pirs’ Docking Compartment were delivered. The modular racks that are part of Destiny were also shipped using the Raffaello Multi-Purpose Logistic Modules (MPLM) aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour, and put into place using the Canadarm2 robotic arm. 2002 saw additional racks, truss segments, solar arrays, and the Mobile Base System for the Station’s Mobile Servicing System being delivered.

In 2007, the European Harmony module was installed, which allowed for the addition of the Columbus and Kibo laboratories – both of which were added in 2008. Between 2009 and 2011, construction was finalized with the addition of the Russian Mini-Research Module-1 and -2 (MRM1 and MRM2), the ‘Tranquility’ Node, the Cupola Observation Module, the Leonardo Permanent Multipurpose Module, and the Robonaut 2 technology suite.

The structure of the ISS (exploded in this diagram) showing the various components and how they are assembled together. Credit: NASA

No additional modules or components were added until 2016, when Bigelow Aersopace installed their experimental Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM). All told, it took 13 years to construct the space station, an estimated $100 billion, and required more than 100 rocket and Space Shuttle launches, and 160 spacewalks.

As of the penning of this article, the station has been continuously occupied for a period of 16 years and 74 days since the arrival of Expedition 1 on November 2nd, 2000. This is the longest continuous human presence in low Earth orbit, having surpassed Mir’s record of 9 years and 357 days.

Purpose and Aims:

The main purpose of the ISS is fourfold: conducting scientific research, furthering space exploration, facilitating education and outreach, and fostering international cooperation. These goals are backed by NASA, the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscomos), the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), and the European Space Agency (ESA), with additional support from other nations and institutions.

As far as scientific research goes, the ISS provides a unique environment to conduct experiments under microgravity conditions. Whereas crewed spacecraft provide a limited platform that is only deployed to space for a limited amount of time, the ISS allows for long-term studies that can last for years (or even decades).

Many different and continuous projects are being conducted aboard the ISS, which are made possible with the support of a full-time crew of six astronauts, and a continuity of visiting vehicles (which also allows for resupply and crew rotations). Scientists on Earth have access to their data, and are able to communicate with the science teams through a number of channels.

The many fields of research conducted aboard the ISS include astrobiology, astronomy, human research, life sciences, physical sciences, space weather, and meteorology. In the case of space weather and meteorology, the ISS is in a unique position to study these phenomena because it’s position in LEO. Here, it has a short orbital period, allowing it to witness weather across the entire globe many times in a single day.

It is also exposed to things like cosmic rays, solar wind, charged subatomic particles, and other phenomena that characterize a space environment. Medical research aboard the ISS is largely focused on the long-term effects of microgravity on living organisms – particularly its effects on bone density, muscle degeneration and organ function – which is intrinsic to long-range space exploration missions.

The ISS also conducts research that is beneficial to space exploration systems. It’s location in LEO also allows for the testing of spacecraft systems that are required for long-range missions. It also provides an environment where astronauts can gain vital experience in terms of operations, maintenance and repair services – which are similarly crucial for long-term missions (such as mission to the Moon and Mars).

The ISS also provides opportunities for education thanks to participation in experiments, where students are able to design experiments and watch as ISS crews carry them out. ISS astronauts are also able to engage classrooms through video link, radio communications, email, and educational videos/web episodes. Various space agencies also maintain educational materials for download based on ISS experiments and operations.

Educational and cultural outreach also fall within the ISS’ mandate. These activities are conducted with the help and support of the participating federal space agencies, and which are designed to encourage education and career training in the STEM (Science, Technical, Engineering, Math) fields.

One of the best known examples of this are the educational videos created by Chris Hadfield – the Canadian astronaut who served as the commander of Expedition 35 aboard the ISS – which chronicled the everyday activities of ISS astronauts. He also directed a great deal of attention to ISS activities thanks to his musical collaboration with the Barenaked Ladies and Wexford Gleeks – titled “I.S.S. (Is Somebody Singing)” (shown above).

His video, a cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, also earned him widespread acclaim. Along with drawing additional attention to the ISS and its crew operations, it was also a major feat since it was the only music video ever to be filmed in space!

Operations Aboard the ISS:

As noted, the ISS is facilitated by rotating crews and regular launches that transport supplies, experiments and equipment to the station. These take the form of both crewed and uncrewed vehicles, depending on the nature of the mission. Crews are generally transported aboard Russian Progress spacecraft, which are launched via Soyuz rockets from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Roscosmos has conducted a total of 60 trips to the ISS using Progress spacecraft, while 40 separate launches were conducted using Soyuz rockets. Some 35 flights were also made to the station using the now-retired NASA Space Shuttles, which transported crew, experiments and supplies. The ESA and JAXA have both conducted 5 cargo transfer missions, using the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) and the H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV), respectively.

In more recent years, private aerospace companies like SpaceX and Orbital ATK have been contracted to provide resupply missions to the ISS, which they have done using their Dragon and Cygnus spacecraft. Additional craft, such as SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, are expected to provide crew transportation in the future.

Alongside the development of reusable first stage rockets, these efforts are being carried out in part to restore domestic launch capability to the US. Since 2014, tensions between the Russia and the US have led to growing concerns over the future of Russian-American cooperation with programs like the ISS.

Crew activities consist of conducting experiments and research considered vital to space exploration. These activities are scheduled from 06:00 to 21:30 hours UTC (Universal Coordinated Time), with breaks being taken for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and regular crew conferences. Every crew member has their own quarters (which includes a tethered sleeping bag), two of which are located in the Zvezda Module and four more installed in Harmony.

During “night hours”, the windows are covered at to give the impression of darkness. This is essential since the station experiences 16 sunrises and sunsets a day. Two exercise periods of 1 hour each are scheduled every day to ensure that the risks of muscle atrophy and bone loss are minimized. The exercise equipment includes two treadmills, the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device (ARED) for simulated weight training, and a stationary bicycle.

Hygiene is maintained thanks to water jets and soap dispensed from tubes, as well as wet wipes, rinseless shampoo, and edible toothpaste. Sanitation is provided by two space toilets – both of Russian design – aboard the Zvezda and Tranquility Modules. Similar to what was available aboard the Space Shuttle, astronauts fasten themselves to the toilet seat and the removal of waste is accomplished with a vacuum suction hole.

Liquid waste is transferred to the Water Recovery System, where it is converted back into drinking water (yes, astronauts drink their own urine, after a fashion!). Solid waste is collected in individual bags that are stored in an aluminum container, which are then transferred to the docked spacecraft for disposal.

Food aboard the station consists mainly of freeze-dried meals in vacuum-sealed plastic bags. Canned goods are available, but are limited due to their weight (which makes them more expensive to transport). Fresh fruit and vegetables are brought during resupply missions, and a large array of spices and condiments are used to ensure that food is flavorful – which is important since one of the effects of microgravity is a diminished sense of taste.

To prevent spillage, drinks and soups are contained in packets and consumed with a straw. Solid food is eaten with a knife and fork, which are attached to a tray with magnets to prevent them from floating away, while drinks are provided in dehydrated powder form and then mixed with water. Any food or crumbs that floats away must be collected to prevent it from clogging the air filters and other equipment.


Life aboard the station also carries with it a high degree of risk. These come in the form of radiation, the long-term effects of microgravity on the human physique, the psychological effects of being in space (i.e. stress and sleep disturbances), and the danger of collision with space debris.

In terms of radiation, objects within the Low-Earth Orbit environment are partially protected from solar radiation and cosmic rays by the Earth’s magnetosphere. However, without the protection of the Earth’s atmosphere, astronauts are still exposed to about 1 millisievert a day, which is the equivalent of what a person on Earth is exposed to during the course of a year.

As a result, astronauts are at higher risk for developing cancer, suffering DNA and chromosomal damage, and diminished immune system function. Hence why protective shielding and drugs are a must aboard the station, as well as protocols for limiting exposure. For instance, during solar flare activity, crews are able to seek shelter in the more heavily shielded Russian Orbital Segment of the station.

As already noted, the effects of microgravity also take a toll on muscle tissues and bone density. According to a 2001 study conducted by NASA’s Human Research Program (HRP) – which researched the effects on an astronaut Scott Kelly’s body after he spent a year aboard the ISS – bone density loss occurs at a rate of over 1% per month.

Similarly, a report by the Johnson Space Center – titled “Muscle Atrophy” – stated that astronauts experience up to a 20% loss of muscle mass on spaceflights lasting just five to 11 days. In addition, more recent studies have indicated that the long-term effects of being in space also include diminished organ function, decreased metabolism, and reduced eyesight.

Because of this, astronauts exercise regularly in order to minimize muscle and bone the loss, and their nutritional regimen is designed to make sure they the appropriate nutrients to maintain proper organ function. Beyond that, the long-term health effects, and additional strategies to combat them, are still being investigated.

But perhaps the greatest hazard comes in the form of orbiting junk – aka. space debris. At present, there are over 500,000 pieces of debris that are being tracked by NASA and other agencies as they orbit the Earth. An estimated 20,000 of these are larger than a softball, while the remainder are about the size of a pebble. All told, there are likely to be many millions of pieces of debris in orbit, but most are so small they can’t be tracked.

These objects can travel at speeds of up to 28,163 km/h (17,500 mph), while the ISS orbits the Earth at a speed of 27,600 km/h (17,200 mph). As a result, a collision with one of these objects could be catastrophic to the ISS. The stations is naturally shielded to withstand impacts from tiny bits of debris and well as micro-meteoroids – and this shielding is divided between the Russian Orbital Segment and the US Orbital Segment.

On the USOS, the shielding consists of a thin aluminum sheet that is held apart from the hull. This sheet causes objects to shatter into a cloud, thereby dispersing the kinetic energy of the impact before it reaches the main hull. On the ROS, shielding takes the form of a carbon plastic honeycomb screen, an aluminum honeycomb screen, and glass cloth, all of which are spaced over the hull.

The ROS’ shielding is less likely to be punctured, hence why the crew moves to the ROS whenever a more serious threat presents itself. But when faced with the possibility of an impact from a larger object that is being tracked, the station performs what is known as a Debris Avoidance Manoeuvre (DAM). In this event, the thrusters on the Russian Orbital Segment fire in order to alter the station’s orbital altitude, thus avoiding the debris.

Future of the ISS:

Given its reliance on international cooperation, there has been concern in recent years – in response to growing tensions between Russia, the United States and NATO – about the future of the International Space Station. However, for the time being, operations aboard the station are secure, thanks to commitments made by all of the major partners.

In January of 2014, the Obama Administration announced that it would be extending funding for the US portion of the station until 2024. Roscosmos has endorsed this extension, but has also voiced approval for a plan that would use elements of the Russian Orbital Segment to construct a new Russian space station.

Known as the Orbital Piloted Assembly and Experiment Complex (OPSEK), the proposed station would serve as an assembly platform for crewed spacecraft traveling to the Moon, Mars, and the outer Solar System. There has also been tentative announcements made by Russian officials about a possible collaborative effort to build a future replacement for the ISS. However, NASA has yet to confirm these plans.

In April of 2015, the Canadian government approved a budget which included funding to ensure the CSA’s participation with the ISS through 2024. In December of 2015, JAXA and NASA announced their plans for a new cooperative framework for the International Space Station (ISS), which included Japan extending its participation until 2024. As of December 2016, the ESA has also committed to extending its mission to 2024.

The ISS represents one of the greatest collaborative and international efforts in history, not to mention one of the greatest scientific undertakings. In addition to providing a location for crucial scientific experiments that cannot be conducted here on Earth, it is also conducting research that will help humanity make its next great leaps in space – i.e. mission to Mars and beyond!

On top of all that, it has been a source of inspiration for countless millions who one day dream of going into space! Who knows what great undertakings the ISS will allow for before it is finally decommissioned – most likely decades from now?

We have written many interesting articles about the ISS here at Universe Today. Here’s International Space Station Achieves 15 Years of Continuous Human Presence in Orbit, Beginner’s Guide to Seeing the International Space Station, Take a Virtual 3-D Spacewalk Outside the International Space Station, International Space Station Viewing and Space Station Pictures.

For more information, check out the NASA Reference Guide to the ISS and this article about the 10th anniversary of the space station.

Astronomy Cast also has relevant episodes on the subject. Here’s Questions: An Unlocked Moon, Energy Into Black Holes, and the Space Station’s Orbit, and Episode 298: Space Stations, Part 3 – International Space Station.