New Soyuz Mission A Go After Technical Delays

On Saturday, September 17th, the Russian space agency (Roscosmos) stated that it would be delaying the launch of the crewed spacecraft Soyuz MS-02. The rocket was scheduled to launch on Friday, September 23rd, and would be carrying a crew of three astronauts – two Russia and one American – to the ISS.

After testing revealed technical flaws in the mission (which were apparently due to a short circuit), Rocosmos decided to postpone the launch indefinitely. But after after days of looking over the glitch, the Russians space agency has announced that it is prepared for a renewed launch on Nov. 1st.

The mission crew consists of mission commander Sergey Ryzhikov, flight engineer Andrey Borisenko and NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough. Originally scheduled to launch on Sept. 23rd, the mission would spend the next two days conducting a rendezvous operation before docking with the International Space Station on Sept. 25th.

The crew of MS-02 (from left to right) - Shane Kimgrough, Sergey Ryzhikov and Andrey Borisenko, pictured in Red Square in Moscow. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
The crew of MS-02 (from left to right): Shane Kimgrough, Sergey Ryzhikov and Andrey Borisenko, pictured in Red Square in Moscow. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

The station is currently being staffed by three crew members – MS-01 commander Anatoly Ivanishin, NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and Japanese astronaut Takuya Onish. These astronauts arrived on the station on Sept.6th, and all three were originally scheduled to return to Earth on October 30th.

Meanwhile, three more astronauts – commander Oleg Novitskiy, ESA flight engineer Thomas Pesquet and NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson – were supposed to replace them as part of mission MS-03, which was scheduled to launch on Nov. 15th. But thanks to the technical issue that grounded the MS-02 flight, this schedule appeared to be in question.

However, the news quickly began to improve after it seemed that the mission might be delayed indefinitely. On Sept.18th, a day after the announcement of the delay, the Russian International News Agency (RIA Novosti) cited a source that indicated that the spacecraft could be replaced and the mission could be rescheduled for next month:

“RIA Novosti’s source noted that the mission was postponed indefinitely because of an identified short circuit during the pre-launch checks. It is possible that the faulty ship “MS – 02 Alliance” can be quickly replaced on the existing same rocket, and then the launch to the ISS will be held in late October.”

Three newly arrived crew of Expedition 48 in Soyuz MS-01 open the hatch and enter the International Space Station after docking on July 9, 2016. Credit: NASA TV
Three newly arrived crew of Expedition 48 in Soyuz MS-01 open the hatch and enter the International Space Station after docking on July 9, 2016. Credit: NASA TV

Then, on Monday, Sept.19th, another source cited by RIA Novosti said that the State Commission responsible for the approval of a new launch date would be reaching a decision no sooner than Tuesday, Sept. 20th. And as of Tuesday morning, a new launch date appears to have been set.

According to news agency, Roscomos notified NASA this morning that the mission will launch on Nov.1st. Sputnik International confirmed this story, claiming that the source was none other than Alexander Koptev – a NASA representative with the Russian Mission Control Center.

“The Russian side has informed the NASA central office of the preliminary plans to launch the manned Soyuz MS-02 on November 1,” he said.

It still not clear where the technical malfunction took place. Since this past Saturday, Russian engineers have been trying to ascertain if the short circuit occurred in the descent module or the instrument module. However, the Russians are already prepared to substitute the Soyuz spacecraft for the next launch, so there will be plenty of time to locate the source of the problem.

The Soyuz MS-01 spacecraft launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome with Expedition 48-49 crewmembers Kate Rubins of NASA, Anatoly Ivanishin of Roscosmos and Takuya Onishi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) onboard, Thursday, July 7, 2016 , Kazakh time (July 6 Eastern time), Baikonur, Kazakhstan. Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
The Soyuz MS-01 spacecraft launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on July 7th, 2016. Credit: NASA/Bill

The Soyuz MS is the latest in a long line of revisions to the venerable Soyuz spacecraft, which has been in service with the Russians since the 1960s. It is perhaps the last revision as well, as Roscosmos plans to develop new crewed spacecraft in the coming decades.

The MS is an evolution of the Soyuz TMA-M spacecraft, another modernized version of the old spacecraft. Compared to its predecessor, the MS model’s comes with updated communications and navigation subsystems, but also boasts some thruster replacements.

The first launch of the new spacecraft – Soyuz MS-01 – took place on July 7th, 2016, aboard a Soyuz-FG launch vehicle, which is itself an improvement on the traditional R-7 rockets. Like the MS-02 mission, MS-01 spent two days undergoing a checkout phase in space before rendezvousing with the ISS.

As such, it is understandable why the Russians would like to get this mission underway and ensure that the latest iteration of the Soyuz MS performs well in space. Until such time as the Russians have a new crewed module to deliver astronauts to the ISS, all foreseeable missions will come down to craft like this one.

Further Reading: Roscosmos, Spaceflightnow.com

Mir: Russia’s Space Station

The Mir Space Station was Russia’s greatest space station, and the first modular space station to be assembled in orbit. Commissioned in 1986, the name can be translated from Russian as “peace”, “world”, and even “village” – alluding to the spirit of international cooperation that led to its creation. Owned and operated by the Soviet Union, it became the property of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) after 1991.

The space station was intended to advocate world peace and hosted international scientists and NASA astronauts. In this respect, Mir was very much the curtain-raiser for the International Space Station, which succeeded it as the largest satellite in Earth’s orbit after 2001.

Origin:

During the 1960s and 70s, when the United States was largely focused on Apollo and the Space Shuttle program, Russia began to focus on developing expertise in long-duration spaceflight, and felt that a larger space station would allow for more research in that area. Authorized in February 1976 by a government decree, the station was originally intended to be an improved model of the Salyut space stations.

The original plan called for a core module that would be equipped with a total of four docking ports, but eventual grew to include several ports for crewed Soyuz spacecraft and Progress cargo spaceships. By August 1978, the plan had grown to the final configuration of one aft port and five ports in a spherical compartment at the forward end of the station.

The Mir Space Station and Earth limb observed from the Orbiter Endeavour during NASA's STS-89 mission in 1998. Credit: NASA
The Mir Space Station and Earth limb observed from the Orbiter Endeavour during NASA’s STS-89 mission in 1998. Credit: NASA

Two would be located at either end of the station (as with the Salyut stations) with an additional two on either side of a docking sphere at the front of the station to enable further modules to expand the station’s capabilities.  These docking ports would each accommodate 20-tonne space station modules based on the TKS spacecraft – a previous generation of space craft used to bring cosmonauts and supplies to the Salyut space stations.

Work began on the station in 1979, and drawings were released in 1982 and 83. By early 1984, work had ground to a halt as virtually all of Russia’s space resources were being put into the Buran program – a Soviet and later Russian reusable spacecraft project. Funding resumed in early 1984 when the Central Committee became determined to orbit Mir by early 1986, just in time for the 27th Communist Party Congress.

Deployment:

On February 19th, 1986, the assembly process began with the launching of Mir’s core module on a Proton-K rocket into orbit. Between 1987 and 1996, four of the six modules were launched and added to the station – Kvant-2 in 1989, Kristall in 1990, Spektr in 1995 and Priroda in 1996. In these cases, the modules were sent into orbit aboard a Proton-K, chased the station automatically, and then used their robot Lyappa arms to mate with the core.

Soviet/Russian space station Mir, after completion in 1996. The date shown for each module is its year of launch. Docked to the station are a Soyuz TM manned spacecraft and an unmanned Progress resupply ferry. Credit: Encyclopedia Britannica
Soviet/Russian space station Mir, after completion in 1996. The date shown for each module is its year of launch. Credit: Encyclopedia Britannica

Kvant-1, having no engines of its own, was delivered by a TKS spacecraft in 1987, while the docking module was brought to the station aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis (STS-74) in 1995. Various other external components, including three truss structures, several experiments and other unpressurized elements, were also mounted to the exterior of the station over the course of its history.

The station’s assembly marked the beginning of the third generation of space station design, being the first to consist of more than one primary spacecraft. First generation stations such as Salyut 1 and Skylab had monolithic designs, consisting of one module with no resupply capability, while second generation stations (Salyut 6 and Salyut 7) comprised a monolithic station with two ports to allow resupply cargo spacecraft (like Progress).

The capability of Mir to be expanded with add-on modules meant that each could be designed with a specific purpose in mind, thus eliminating the need to install all the station’s equipment in one module. After construction was finished, Mir had a collection of facilities. At 13.1 meters (43 feet) long, the “core” module of the station was the main area where the cosmonauts and astronauts did their work. It also housed the main computer and vital space station parts, such as communications.

In addition to solar arrays and a docking port, the station had several facilities for orbital science. These included, but were not limited to, the two Kvant modules (where astronomy and other scientific research was conducted), the Kristall module (which had a facility for microgravity manufacturing) and Spektr (focused on Earth work).

A view of the Russian space station Mir on 3 July 1993 as seen from Soyuz TM-17. Credit: spacefacts.de
A view of the Russian space station Mir on 3 July 1993 as seen from Soyuz TM-17. Credit: spacefacts.de

Missions:

During its 15-year spaceflight, Mir was visited by a total of 28 long-duration, or “principal”, crews. Expeditions varied in length, but generally lasted around six months. Principal expedition crews consisted of two to three crew members, who often launched as part of one expedition but returned with another.

As part of the Soviet Union’s manned spaceflight program effort to maintain a long-term research outpost in space, operated by the new Russian Federal Space Agency after 1991, the vast majority of the station’s crew were Russian. However, through international collaborations, the station was made accessible to astronauts from North America, several European nations and Japan.

Collaborative programs included the Intercosmos, Euromir and Shuttle-Mir programs. Intercosmos, which ran from 1978-1988, involved astronauts from other Warsaw Pact Nations, other socialist nations – like Afghanistan, Cuba, Mongolia, and Vietnam – and pro-Soviet non-aligned nations such as India, Syria, and even France.

Euromir, which began in the 1990s, was a collaborative effort between the Russian Federal Space Agency and the European Space Agency (ESA) to bring European astronauts to the space station. With help provided by the NASA Space Shuttle program, the goal was to recruit and train European astronauts for the then-planned International Space Station.

Meanwhile, the Shuttle–Mir Program was a collaborative space program between Russia and the United States, and involved American Space Shuttles visiting the space station, Russian cosmonauts flying on the shuttle, and an American astronaut flying aboard a Soyuz spacecraft to engage in long-duration expeditions aboard Mir.

A view of the US Space Shuttle Atlantis and the Russian Space Station Mir during STS-71 as seen by the crew of Mir EO-19 in Soyuz TM-21. Credit: NASA
A view of the US Space Shuttle Atlantis and the Russian Space Station Mir during STS-71 as seen by the crew of Mir EO-19 in Soyuz TM-21. Credit: NASA

By the time of the station’s deorbit, it had been visited by 104 different people from twelve different nations, making it the most visited spacecraft in history (a record later surpassed by the International Space Station).

Decommissioning:

When it was launched in 1986, Mir was only supposed to have a life span of about five years, but it proved to have a greater longevity than anyone expected. Unfortunately, a series of technical and structural problems eventually caught up with the station; and in November 2000, the Russian government announced that it would decommission the space station.

This began on Jan. 24th, 2001, when a Russian Progress cargo ship rendezvoused with the station carrying twice its normal amount of fuel. The extra fuel was intended to fire the Progress’ thrusters once it had docked with Mir and push the station into a controlled descent through the Earth’s atmosphere.

The Russian government purchased insurance just in case the space station hit any populated area when it crashed to Earth. Luckily, the station ended up crashing into the South Pacific Ocean, landing about 2,897 kilometers from New Zealand. In 2001, former RKA General Director Yuri Koptev estimated that the cost of the Mir program to be $4.2 billion (including development, assembly and orbital operation).

Legacy:

The Mir Space Station endured for 15 years in orbit, three times its planned lifetime. It hosted scores of crew members and international visitors, raised the first crop of wheat to be grown from seed to seed in outer space, and served as a symbol of Russia’s past glories and it’s potential as a future leader in space exploration.

Jerry Linenger dons a mask during his mission on Mir in 1997. Credit: NASA
Jerry Linenger dons a mask during his mission on Mir in 1997. Credit: NASA

In addition, the station was a source of controversy over the years, due to the many accidents and hazards it endured. The most famous of these took place on February 24, 1997 during mission STS-81. On this occasion, which saw the Space Shuttle Atlantis delivering crew, supplies, and conducting a series of tests, the worst fire aboard an orbiting spacecraft broke out.

This caused failures in various on-board systems, a near collision with a Progress resupply cargo ship during a long-distance manual docking system test, and a total loss of station electrical power. The power failure also caused a loss of attitude control, which led to an uncontrolled “tumble” through space. Luckily, the crew managed to suppress the fire and regain control before long.

Another major incident took place on June 25th, when a Progress resupply ship collided with solar arrays on the Spektr module, creating a hole which caused the station to lose pressure. This was the first orbital depressurization in the history of spaceflight to take place. Luckily, no astronauts were lost while serving aboard the station.

Mir is also famous for hosting long-duration missions during its early years in space. Topping the list was Russian cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov, who spent nearly 438 days aboard Mir and landed on March 22, 1995. The station itself orbited the Earth more than 86,000 times during its lifespan, and was also the largest orbiting object in the Solar System.

But most importantly of all, Mir served as the stage for the first large-scale, technical partnership between Russia and the United States after a half-century of mutual antagonism. Without it, there would be no ISS today, and numerous joint-research efforts between NASA, the ESA, Russia, and other federal space agencies, would not have been possible.

We have written many interesting articles about space stations here at Universe Today. Here’s What is the International Space Station?, Fire! How the Mir Incident Changed Space Station History, The Mir Space Station: An Unlikely Place for a Beautiful Art Exhibit, and Mir’s Fiery Re-entry, March 23, 2001.

For more information, check out the Mir Space Station and Shuttle-Mir.

And Astronomy Cast has a wonderful episode on Mir, titled Episode 297: Space Stations, Part 2: Mir

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What Does NASA Stand For?

Chances are that if you have lived on this planet for the past half-century, you’ve heard of NASA. As the agency that is in charge of America’s space program, they put a man on the Moon, launched the Hubble Telescope, helped establish the International Space Station, and sent dozens of probes and shuttles into space.

But do you know what the acronym NASA actually stands for? Well, NASA stands for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. As such, it oversees America’s spaceflight capabilities and conducts valuable research in space. NASA also has various programs on Earth dedicated to flight, hence why the term “Aeronautics” appears in the agency’s name.

Continue reading “What Does NASA Stand For?”