Success ! Launch Video of Crucial Russian Rocket to ISS puts Human Flights back on Track

Video caption: Liftoff of unmanned Russian Progress craft atop Soyuz booster on Oct. 30, 2011 from Baikonur Cosmodrome. Credit: NASA TV/Roscosmos.
Photos and rocket rollout video below

The very future of the International Space Station was on the line this morning as the Russian Progress 45 cargo ship successfully launched this morning from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 6:11 a.m. EDT (4:11 p.m. Baikonur time) on Oct. 30, 2011, bound for the ISS.

Today’s (Oct. 30) blastoff of the Soyuz rocket booster that is used for both the Progress cargo resupply missions and the Soyuz manned capsules was the first since the failure of the third stage of the prior Progress 44 mission on August 24 which crashed in Siberia.

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The third stage is nearly identical for both the manned and unmanned versions of the normally highly reliable Soyuz booster rocket.

Today’s success therefore opens up the door to resumption of crewed flights to the ISS, which were grounded by Russia after the unexpected loss of the Progress 44 mission.

If this Progress flight had failed, the ISS would have had to be left in an uncrewed state for the first time since continuous manned occupation began more than 10 years ago and would have significantly increased the risk for survival of the ISS in the event of a major malfunction and no human presence on board to take swift corrective action.

Liftoff of Soyuz rocket with Progress 45 to ISS from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Credit:RIA Novosti

NASA issued the following statement from Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at NASA Headquarters in Washington, about the launch of the Progress 45 spacecraft.

“We congratulate our Russian colleagues on Sunday’s successful launch of ISS Progress 45, and the spacecraft is on its way to the International Space Station. Pending the outcome of a series of flight readiness meetings in the coming weeks, this successful flight sets the stage for the next Soyuz launch, planned for mid-November. The December Soyuz mission will restore the space station crew size to six and continue normal crew rotations.”

Progress 45 is carrying nearly 3 tons of supplies to the ISS, including food, water, clothing, spare parts, fuel, oxygen and science experiments for use by the resident crews.

The resupply vehicle achieved the desired preliminary orbit after the eight and one half minute climb to space and deployed its solar arrays and communications antennae’s.

After a two day chase, Progress 45 will automatically link up with the ISS at the Pirs Docking Compartment on Nov. 2 at 7:40 a.m (EDT) and deliver 1,653 pounds of propellant, 110 pounds of oxygen and air, 926 pounds of water and 3,108 pounds of spare parts, experiment hardware and other supplies for the Expedition 29 crew.

Progress 45 atop Soyuz-U booster awaits liftoff from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Credit: Roscosmos

The successful launch sets the stage for the launch of the station’s next three residents on Nov. 13. NASA’s Dan Burbank and Russia’s Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin will arrive at the station Nov. 16, joining NASA’s Mike Fossum, Russia’s Sergei Volkov and Japan’s Satoshi Furukawa for about six days before Fossum, Volkov and Furukawa return home.

Liftoff of Burbank’s crew was delayad from the original date on September 22 following the Progress failure in August. Because of the delayed Soyuz crew launch, the handover period from one crew to the next had to be cut short.

Since the forced retirement of the Space Shuttle, the US has absolutely no way to send human crews to orbit for several years to come at a minimum and is totally reliant on Russia.

The survival of the ISS with humans crews on board is therefore totally dependent on a fully functioning and reliable Soyuz rocket.


Video caption: Rollout of Soyuz rocket and Progress cargo craft to Baikonur launch pad.

Read Ken’s continuing features about Soyuz from South America here:
Video Duet – Soyuz Debut Blast off from the Amazon Jungle and Rockin’ Russian Rollout !
Historic 1st Launch of Legendary Soyuz from South America
Russian Soyuz Poised for 1st Blastoff from Europe’s New South American Spaceport

Russia Fuels Phobos-Grunt and sets Mars Launch for November 9

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Russia’s Space Agency, Roscosmos, has set November 9 as the launch date for the Phobos-Grunt mission to Mars and its tiny moon Phobos. Roscosmos has officially announced that the audacious mission to retrieve the first ever soil samples from the surface of Phobos will blastoff from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan atop a Zenit-2SB rocket at 00:16 a.m. Moscow time.

Roscosmos said that engineers have finished loading all the propellants into the Phobos-Grunt main propulsion module (cruise stage), Phobos lander and Earth return module at Facility 31 at Baikonur.

Phobos-Grunt is Russia’s first mission to Mars in almost two decades and a prelude to an ambitious program of even more interplanetary Russian science flights.

Russian Phobos-Grunt spacecraft is set to launch to Mars on November 9, 2011.
L-shaped soil sample transfer tube extends from Earth return module ( top -yellow) and solar panel to bottom (left) of lander module. 2 landing legs, communications antenna, sampling arm, propulsion tanks and more are visible. Credit Roscosmos

Technicians also fueled the companion Yinghou-1 mini-satellite, provided by China, that will ride along inside a truss segment between the MDU propulsion module and the Phobos-Grunt lander.

The 12,000 kg Phobos-Grunt interplanetary spacecraft is being moved to an integration and test area at Facility 31 for integration with the departure segments of the Zenit rocket.

The next step is to enclose Phobos-Grunt inside the protective payload fairing and transport it to Facility 42 for mating atop the upper stage of the stacked Zenit-2SB booster rocket.

After about an 11 month journey, the spaceship will enter Mars orbit and spend several months searching for a suitable landing site on Phobos. The goal of the bold mission is to retrieve up to 200 grams of soil and rock from Phobos and return them to Earth in August 2014. The samples will help unlock the mysteries of the origin and evolution of Phobos, Mars and the Solar System.

Scientists hope that bits of Martian soil will be mixed in with Phobos soil.

Phobos-Grunt is equipped with a powerful 50 kg payload of some 20 international science instruments.

The 110 kg Yinghou-1, which translates as Firefly-1, is China’s first spaceship to voyage to Mars. It will be jettisoned by Phobos-Grunt into a separate orbit about Mars. The probe will photograph the Red planet with two cameras and study it with a magnetometer to explore Mars’ magnetic field and science instruments to explore its upper atmosphere.

Earth’s other mission to Mars in 2011, NASA’s Curiosity rover, is set to blast off for Mars on Nov. 25

Labeled Schematic of Phobos-Grunt and Yinghou-1 (YH-1) orbiter

Read Ken’s continuing features about Russia’s Phobos-Grunt Mars mission here::
Phobos-Grunt and Yinghou-1 Arrive at Baikonur Launch Site to tight Mars Deadline
Phobos-Grunt: The Mission Poster
Daring Russian Sample Return mission to Martian Moon Phobos aims for November Liftoff

Read Ken’s continuing features about Curiosity starting here:
Curiosity Buttoned Up for Martian Voyage in Search of Life’s Ingredients
Assembling Curiosity’s Rocket to Mars
Encapsulating Curiosity for Martian Flight Test
Dramatic New NASA Animation Depicts Next Mars Rover in Action

Historic 1st Launch of Legendary Soyuz from South America

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Russia’s legendary Soyuz rocket soared skywards today (Oct.21) on its historic 1st ever blastoff from a new European space base in the equatorial jungles of South America. The history making liftoff of the Soyuz ST-B launcher from French Guiana occurred at exactly 6:30:26 a.m. EST (10:30:26 GMT) and lofted the first two operational satellites of Europe’s new Galileo GPS navigation system.

The flawless liftoff of the Soyuz booster from the ELS pad in French Guiana marked the first time that a Soyuz was launched from outside of the six existing pads in Russia and Kazakhstan. The joint Russian-European project was started back in 2004 and culminated with today’s launch of the Soyuz-VSO1 mission.

“This launch represents a lot for Europe: we have placed in orbit the first two satellites of Galileo, a system that will position our continent as a world-class player in the strategic domain of satellite navigation, a domain with huge economic perspectives,” said Jean-Jacques Dordain, Director General of ESA.

First Soyuz lift blastoff from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana on 21 October 2011. Mobile gantry at left. Credits:Thilo Kranz/DLR - Special to Universe Today

Soyuz lineage dates back to the beginning of the Space Age with the launch of Sputnik-1 in 1957 and the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, in 1961. Soyuz had flown 1776 times to date.

First Soyuz lift from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana on 21 October 2011. Credits: ESA/CNES/ARIANESPACE - S. Corvaja, 2011

The launcher is based on the existing Soyuz design with a few changes to accommodate European safety standards and the construction of the ELS launch pad was modeled after the existing pads in Baikonur in Kazakhstan and Plesetsk in Russia. One significant difference is the construction of a 45 meter (170 foot) mobile gantry

A leaky valve delayed the flight by one day.

The duo of 700 kg Galileo satellites were mounted side by side on the Fregat upper stage atop the three stage Soyuz-2 rocket. These two Galileo In-orbit Validation (IOV) model satellites are experimental models that will be used to test the GPS technology.

Soyuz lifts off for the first time on 21 October 2011 from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana carrying the first two Galileo In-Orbit Validation satellites. Credits: ESA/CNES/ARIANESPACE - S. Corvaja, 2011

Two additional Galileo IOV satellites will be launched in 2012 as the initial segment of a 30 strong constellation of satellites in total.

The Galileo satelites will provide pinpoint accuracy to within about 1 meter (3 feet) compared to about 3 meters (10 feet) for the GPS system.

The 4 meter diameter payload fairing jettisoned as planned three minutes into the flight and the first of two firings of the Fregat upper stage was successfully completed after burnout of the lower stages. The second Fregat firing was accomplished about 4 hours after launch and injected the Galileo satellites into orbit some 23,000 km (14,000 miles) miles high.

The Fregat upper stage was designed to reignite and fire up to 20 times. It is fueled with nitrogen tetroxide and unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH).

First Soyuz lift from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana on 21 October 2011. Credits: ESA/CNES/ARIANESPACE - S. Corvaja, 2011

By launching from near the equator (5°N), the Soyuz gains about a 50% performance boost from 1.7 tons to nearly 3 tons to geostationary orbit due to the Earth’s faster spin compared to Baikonur (46°N).

Manned Soyuz missions from South America could be possible at some future date if the political and funding go ahead was approved by ESA and Russia. It is technically possible to reach the ISS from the French Guiana pad and would require the installation of additional ground support equipment.

The next Soyuz launch from South America is set for Dec. 16, 2011. 17 contracts have already been signed for future liftoffs at a rate of 2 to 3 per year.

Read Ken’s continuing features about Soyuz from South America starting here:
Russian Soyuz Poised for 1st Blastoff from Europe’s New South American Spaceport

Read Ken’s features about Russia’s upcoming Phobos-Grunt launch from Baikonur here:
Phobos-Grunt and Yinghou-1 Arrive at Baikonur Launch Site to tight Mars Deadline
Phobos-Grunt: The Mission Poster
Daring Russian Sample Return mission to Martian Moon Phobos aims for November Liftoff

Phobos-Grunt and Yinghou-1 Arrive at Baikonur Launch Site to tight Mars Deadline

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Barely in the nick of time, Russia’s groundbreaking Phobos-Grunt interplanetary spacecraft to Mars finally arrived on Monday (Oct. 17) at the Baikonur Cosmodrome launch site in Kazakhstan – and today (Oct. 18) an eye-popping collection of great images (see below) was at last published by Roskosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency.

This first-of-its-kind spaceship is due to blast off quite soon – sometime in the first half of November – although Roskosmos has yet to announce an official launch date and time is running out. The deadline to Mars is Nov. 25.

Top view of Phobos-Grunt, sample return vehicle. Credit: Roskosmos.

The explicit close-up photos show both the Phobos-Grunt orbiter/lander vehicle and her companion Yinghou-1 Mars orbiter, built by China, being uncrated from a huge shipping container, uprighted and then showcased from many revealing angles from top to bottom, tilted from side to side and looking inside her hardware stack.

The photos illustrate the solar panels, landing legs, J-shaped soil sampling tube, Earth return vehicle and descent capsule, star trackers, communications antennae, maneuvering thrusters and more.

Top view of Phobos-Grunt, sample return vehicle. Credit: Roskosmos.

The Yinghou-1 mini-satellite is clearly visible tucked inside a truss situated between the Phobos-Grunt landing ship and the MDU propulsion stage.

Phobos-Grunt was just air shipped from Moscow to Baikonur inside an Antonov An-124-100 “Ruslan” cargo plane operated by “Polyot” airline.

The cargo canister was offloaded and transported by truck to Facility 31. The spacecraft was then placed on a test stand to begin an intense period of final prelaunch payload processing activites to ready the probe for launch.

The Zenit-2SB booster rocket also recently arrived at Baikonur for ongoing prelaunch processing at nearby Building 42.

Chinese Yinghou-1 mini-satellite tucked truss at right, situated below the Phobos-Grunt lander at left. Credit: Roskosmos.

Russia’s engineers and technicians will have to work diligently in the few weeks remaining in order to complete all preflight activities to achieve a liftoff to the Red Planet before the unforgiving and narrow launch window closes for another 26 months.

Phobos-Grunt Earth return spacecraft. Close-up view of solar panels, Earth descent capsule and soil sample transfer tube. Credit: Roskosmos.
Phobos-Grunt sample collecting and sample return vehicle. Credit: Roskosmos.

Tilted view of Phobos-Grunt attached to test stand for final prelaunch processing. Credit: Roskosmos.

Earth is actually lofting two exciting science missions to Mars this November. NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory rover is due to blastoff on Nov. 25 and her launch window extends until Dec. 18. Both spaceships missed their initially targeted launch windows in 2009 due to the need to fix unresolved technical issues.

Phobos-Grunt is a daring sample return mission whose goal is to retrieve up to 200 grams of soil and rock from the tiny Martian moon Phobos, that will help elucidate the origin and evolution of Phobos, Mars and the Solar System.

Tilted view of Phobos-Grunt attached to test stand for final prelaunch processing. Credit: Roskosmos.

Side view of Phobos-Grunt and Yinghou-1 orbiter (bottom) attached to test stand for final prelaunch processing. Credit: Roskosmos.

Labeled Schematic of Phobos-Grunt and Yinghou-1 (YH-1) orbiter

Read Ken’s continuing Mars features about Phobos-Grunt, Curiosity and Opportunity starting here:
Phobos-Grunt: The Mission Poster
Daring Russian Sample Return mission to Martian Moon Phobos aims for November Liftoff
Assembling Curiosity’s Rocket to Mars
Encapsulating Curiosity for Martian Flight Test
Dramatic New NASA Animation Depicts Next Mars Rover in Action
Opportunity spotted Exploring vast Endeavour Crater from Mars Orbit
Twin Towers 9/11 Tribute by Opportunity Mars Rover
NASA Robot arrives at ‘New’ Landing Site holding Clues to Ancient Water Flow on Mars
Opportunity Arrives at Huge Martian Crater with Superb Science and Scenic Outlook
Opportunity Snaps Gorgeous Vistas nearing the Foothills of Giant Endeavour Crater

Russia Eyes Caves on Moon for Setting Up a Lunar Base

For the time being, it appears NASA has set aside any ambitions to return to the Moon with human missions. But Russia may consider sending cosmonauts to the lunar surface to set up a colony using natural caves and possible volcanic tunnels as protection from the harsh lunar environment.

“If it turns out that the Moon has a number of caves that can provide some protection from radiation and meteor showers, it could be an even more interesting destination than previously thought,” said veteran cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, quoted in an article by Reuters.

Krikalev served on board two different space stations and flew on the space shuttle. He now leads Russia’s Star City cosmonaut training center outside Moscow. He and Russian scientists discussed the possible Moon base a forum on the future of manned spaceflight.

The image above is from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter showing a cave or pit found in the Sea of Tranquility. Scientists have estimated the depth of the pit at over 100 meters, and several other caves have been found with orbiting spacecraft. Lunar scientists are studying the images to determine if an extended lava tube system still exists beneath the surface.

See our article on Moon caves.

“This new discovery that the moon may be a rather porous body could significantly alter our approach to founding lunar bases,” said Krikalev. “There wouldn’t be any need to dig the lunar soil and build walls and ceilings. It would be enough to use an inflatable module with a hard outer shell to — roughly speaking — seal the caves.”

Reuters quoted Russian scientist Boris Kryuchkov as saying the first such lunar colonies could be built by 2030.

Sergei Krikalev works aboard the Interrnational Space Station. Credit: NASA

Krikalev has more than two years cumulative time in space His first long-duration flight to the Soviet space station Mir was in 1988, and he did back-to-back increments on Mir flight starting in May 1991 and returning to Earth in March 1992. While he was in orbit, the Soviet Union disintegrated and Mir became a Russian space station.

He became the first Russian to fly a Shuttle mission on STS-60 in February 1994. His second Shuttle flight took the Unity node to the International Space Station on STS-88 in December 1998. He was a member of the Station’s Expedition 1 crew, launching in October 2000 and returning to Earth in March 2001. He launched as commander of Expedition 11 in 2005.

Source: Reuters

Phobos-Grunt: The Mission Poster

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Russia is marking the upcoming blastoff of their dauntingly complex Phobos-Grunt sample return mission to the Martian moon Phobos with the release of a quite cool looking mission poster – see above. Phobos-Grunt translates as Phobos-Soil and is due to liftoff on or about November 7, 2011 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome atop a Zenit rocket.

The holy grail of Mars exploration has long been a sample return mission. But with severe cutbacks to NASA’s budget that goal is realistically more than a decade away. That’s why Phobos- Grunt is so exciting from a scientific standpoint.

Phobos-Grunt Orbiter/Lander
Russia's Phobos-Grunt is designed to land on Mars' moon Phobos, collect soil samples and return them to Earth for study. The lander will also carry scientific instrumetns to study Phobos and its environment. It will travel to Mars together with Yinghuo-1, China's first mission to the Red Planet. Credit: NPO Lavochkin

Phobos-Grunt Robotic sampling arm. Credit: Roskosmos

If successful, this audacious probe will retrieve about 200 grams of soil from the diminutive moon Phobos and accomplish the round trip in three years time by August 2014. Scientists speculate that martian dust may coat portions of Phobos and could possibly be mixed in with any returned samples.

Included here are more photos and graphics of the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft which is equipped with two robotic arms and a sampling device to transfer regolith and rocks to the Earth return vehicle and an on board array of some 15 science instruments, including lasers, spectrometers, cameras and a microscope. Readers please feel free to help with Russian translations.

Phobos-Grunt Model
This is a full-scale mockup of Russia's Phobos-Grunt. The spacecraft will collect samples of soil on Mar's moon Phobos and to bring the samples back to Earth for detailed study. Credit: CNES

Phobos-Grunt is the first of Earth’s two missions launching to the Red Planet in 2011. NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory is due to lift off on Nov. 25, 2011 from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Read Ken’s continuing features about Phobos-Grunt, Curiosity and Opportunity starting here:
Daring Russian Sample Return mission to Martian Moon Phobos aims for November Liftoff
Assembling Curiosity’s Rocket to Mars
Encapsulating Curiosity for Martian Flight Test
Dramatic New NASA Animation Depicts Next Mars Rover in Action
Opportunity spotted Exploring vast Endeavour Crater from Mars Orbit
Twin Towers 9/11 Tribute by Opportunity Mars Rover
NASA Robot arrives at ‘New’ Landing Site holding Clues to Ancient Water Flow on Mars
Opportunity Arrives at Huge Martian Crater with Superb Science and Scenic Outlook
Opportunity Snaps Gorgeous Vistas nearing the Foothills of Giant Endeavour Crater

Daring Russian Sample Return mission to Martian Moon Phobos aims for November Liftoff

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In just over 3 weeks’ time, Russia plans to launch a bold mission to Mars whose objective, if successful , is to land on the Martian Moon Phobos and return a cargo of precious soil samples back to Earth about three years later.

The purpose is to determine the origin and evolution of Phobos and how that relates to Mars and the evolution of the solar system.

Liftoff of the Phobos-Grunt space probe will end a nearly two decade long hiatus in Russia’s exploration of the Red Planet following the failed Mars 96 mission and is currently scheduled to head to space just weeks prior to this year’s other Mars mission – namely NASA’s next Mars rover, the Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL).

Blastoff of Phobos-Grunt may come as early as around Nov. 5 to Nov. 8 atop a Russian Zenit 3-F rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The launch window extends until about Nov. 25. Elements of the spacecraft are undergoing final prelaunch testing at Baikonur.

Flight version of the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft during assembly in preparation for critical testing in thermal and vacuum chamber at NITs RKP facility closely imitating harsh conditions of the real space flight. Credit: NPO Lovochkin

Baikonur is the same location from which Russian manned Soyuz rockets lift off for the International Space Station. Just like NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover, the mission was originally intended for a 2009 launch but was prudently delayed to fix a number of technical problems.

“November will see the launch of the Phobos-Grunt interplanetary automatic research station aimed at delivering samples of the Martian natural satellite’s soil to Earth’” said Vladimir Popovkin, head of the Russian Federal Space Agency, speaking recently at a session of the State Duma according to the Voice of Russia, a Russian government news agency.

Phobos-Grunt spacecraft

The spacecraft will reach the vicinity of Mars after an 11 month interplanetary cruise around October 2012. Following several months of orbital science investigations of Mars and its two moons and searching for a safe landing site, Phobos-Grunt will attempt history’s first ever touchdown on Phobos. It will conduct a comprehensive analysis of the surface of the tiny moon and collect up to 200 grams of soil and rocks with a robotic arm and drill.

Russian Phobos-Grunt spacecraft prepares for testing inside the vacuum chamber. Credit: NPO Lavochkin

After about a year of surface operations, the loaded return vehicle will blast off from Phobos and arrive back at Earth around August 2014. These would be the first macroscopic samples returned from another body in the solar system since Russia’s Luna 24 in 1976.

“The way back will take between nine and 11 months, after which the return capsule will enter Earth’s atmosphere at a speed of 12 kilometers per second. The capsule has neither parachute nor radio communication and will break its speed thanks to its conical shape,” said chief spacecraft constructor Maksim Martynov according to a report from the Russia Today news agency. He added that there are two soil collection manipulators on the lander because of uncertainties in the characteristics of Phobos soil.

Phobos-Grunt was built by NPO Lavochkin and consists of a cruise stage, orbiter/lander, ascent vehicle, and Earth return vehicle.

The spacecraft weighs nearly 12,000 kg and is equipped with a sophisticated 50 kg international science payload, in particular from France and CNES, the French Space Agency.

Also tucked aboard is the Yinghou-1 microsatellite supplied by China. The 110 kg Yinghou-1 is China’s first probe to launch to Mars and will study the Red Planet’s magnetic and gravity fields and surface environment from orbit for about 1 year.

“It will be the first time such research [at Mars] will be done by two spacecraft simultaneously. The research will help understand how the erosion of Mars’ atmosphere happens,” said Professor Lev Zelyony from the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Science, according to Russia Today.

Phobos-Grunt mission scenario. Credit: CNES
Phobos seen by Mars Express. Credit: ESA

Read Ken’s continuing features about Phobos-Grunt, Curiosity and Opportunity starting here:
Assembling Curiosity’s Rocket to Mars
Encapsulating Curiosity for Martian Flight Test
Dramatic New NASA Animation Depicts Next Mars Rover in Action
Opportunity spotted Exploring vast Endeavour Crater from Mars Orbit
Twin Towers 9/11 Tribute by Opportunity Mars Rover
NASA Robot arrives at ‘New’ Landing Site holding Clues to Ancient Water Flow on Mars
Opportunity Arrives at Huge Martian Crater with Superb Science and Scenic Outlook
Opportunity Snaps Gorgeous Vistas nearing the Foothills of Giant Endeavour Crater
Opportunity Rover Heads for Spirit Point to Honor Dead Martian Sister; Science Team Tributes

Yuri Gagarin From the Earth to Mars Tribute

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50 Years ago, the dream of human spaceflight opened with the courageous blastoff of Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin inside the Vostok 1 spacecraft on April 12, 1961. Gagarin was the first person to orbit the Earth. Less than a month later on May 5. 1961, Astronaut Alan Shepard bravely set forth on America’s first human spaceflight – Freedom 7.

Barely three weeks afterward on May 25, 1961, these momentous events of the early Space Age led directly to Project Apollo and the historic announcement by President Kennedy that the United States “would land a man on the moon” by the end of the 1960’s.

In honor of Yuri Gagarin, NASA’s Opportunity Mars Rover explored a small and highly eroded crater dubbed “Vostok Crater” in 2005 during its journey in the Meridian Planum region on the Martian surface. Along the edge of the crater, researchers commanded Opportunity to use the Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT), to drill into a rock dubbed “Gagarin” on Sols 401 and 402 in March 2005.

Yuri Gagarin - first human in space. Credit: Russian Archives

I created the poster collage above as a tribute to the first human spaceflight by Yuri Gagarin and his legacy which eventually led to the exploration of Mars by the Spirit and Opportunity rovers

Opportunity landed on Mars on Jan. 24, 2004 for a planned 90 sol mission. By the time that Opportunity arrived at Vostok Crater, she had already lasted more than 4 times longer than expected and found that water existed on ancient Mars.

Opportunity is still alive today on Sol 2571, more than 28 times beyond its design lifetime !

Opportunity used its rock abrasion tool (RAT) on a rock named "Gagarin" during Sols 401 and 402 on Mars (March 10 and 11, 2005). This false-color image shows the circular mark created where the tool exposed the interior of the rock Gagarin at a target called "Yuri." The circle is about 4.5 centimeters (1.8 inches) in diameter. Gagarin is at the edge of a highly eroded, small crater that was named "Vostok" for the spacecraft that carried Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in the first human spaceflight, on April 12, 1961. This image combines exposures taken through three different filters by Opportunity's panoramic camera on Sol 405 (March 14, 2005). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./ASU

Scientists are using the data gathered from “Gagarin Rock” and other locations explored by Opportunity to help elucidate the history of the past flow of liquid water on the red planet and determine whether the wet environmental conditions could ever have supported martian microbial life – past or present.

“The 50th anniversary of mankind’s first fledgling foray into the cosmos should serve as an important reminder of the spirit of adventure and exploration that has propelled mankind throughout history,” said Mars rover science team member James Rice of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md, in a statement. “We are a species of explorers; it is encoded into our very DNA.”

“Half a century ago Yuri Gagarin was lofted into a totally unknown, remote and hostile environment and in doing so opened up a new limitless frontier of possibilities for mankind,” Rice added. “A mere 23 days later another brave human, Alan Shepard, climbed aboard a rocket and ventured into the starry abyss. Their courage and vision continue to inspire and lead us into the unknown. Hopefully, one day in the not too distant future it will lead humanity on a voyage to Mars.”

Many people, including myself, were inspired by the Space Race to become scientists and engineers and hope that continues for the next generation of students today.

Read more about Yuri Gagarin and Opportunity in my related stories:

Yuri Gagarin and Vostok 1 Photo Album – 50th Anniversary of Human Spaceflight
Countdown to Yuri’s Night and the 50th Anniversary of Human Spaceflight !
Stirring Video Tributes to Yuri Gagarin
Opportunity Rover Completes Exploration of fascinating Santa Maria Crater

Opportunity used its rock abrasion tool on a rock named "Gagarin" during the 401st and 402nd Martian days, or sols, of the rover's work on Mars (March 10 and 11, 2005). This image, taken by Opportunity's navigation camera on Sol 405 (March 14, 2005), shows the circular mark left on the rock. The circle is about 4.5 centimeters (1.8 inches) in diameter. At the end of the rover's arm, the tool turret is positioned with the rock abrasion tool pointing upward in this image. The abrasion target on the rock Gagarin was informally named "Yuri." Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Opportunity Traverse Map during 7 year long journey across Mars.
Map shows the long journey of Opportunity spanning the Meridiani Planum region from landing in Jan 2004 to recent stop at Santa Maria crater. Opportunity explored Vostok Crater in March 2005, about 1 year after landing as indicted by marker in yellow. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell Marco Di Lorenzo, Kenneth Kremer

Roscosmos Highlights from 2010

From Russia, with love. Here’s a video put together by Roscosmos of launch and mission highlights. Interestingly, in 2010, Russia has made almost a half of all launches in the world – 31 launches of 74. Next was the USA and China with 15 launches each. ESA sent 6 rockets to space, India had 3, South Korea had 1, Japan 2, and Israel 1. Four launches in the world were unsuccessful.

Via Spaceports