ESA’s Gaia Mission Launches to Map the Milky Way

Early this morning, at 09:12 UTC, the cloudy pre-dawn sky above the coastal town of Kourou, French Guiana was brilliantly sliced by the fiery exhaust of a Soyuz VS06, which ferried ESA’s “billion-star surveyor” Gaia into space to begin its five-year mission to map the Milky Way.

Ten minutes after launch, after separation of the first three stages, the Fregat upper stage ignited, successfully delivering Gaia into a temporary parking orbit at an altitude of 175 km (108 miles). A second firing of the Fregat 11 minutes later took Gaia into its transfer orbit, followed by separation from the upper stage 42 minutes after liftoff. 46 minutes later Gaia’s sunshield was deployed, and the spacecraft is now cruising towards its target orbit around L2, a gravitationally-stable point in space located 1.5 million km (932,000 miles) away in the “shadow” of the Earth.

The launch itself was really quite beautiful, due in no small part to the large puffy clouds over the launch site. Watch the video below:

A global space astrometry mission, Gaia will make the largest, most precise three-dimensional map of our galaxy by surveying more than a billion stars over a five-year period.

“Gaia promises to build on the legacy of ESA’s first star-mapping mission, Hipparcos, launched in 1989, to reveal the history of the galaxy in which we live,” says Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA’s Director General.

Soyuz VS06, with Gaia, lifted off from French Guiana, 19 December 2013. (ESA - S. Corvaja)
Soyuz VS06 with Gaia (ESA – S. Corvaja, 2013)

Repeatedly scanning the sky, Gaia will observe each of the billion stars an average of 70 times each over the five years. (That’s 40 million observations every day!) It will measure the position and key physical properties of each star, including its brightness, temperature and chemical composition.

By taking advantage of the slight change in perspective that occurs as Gaia orbits the Sun during a year, it will measure the stars’ distances and, by watching them patiently over the whole mission, their motions across the sky.

The motions of the stars can be put into “rewind” to learn more about where they came from and how the Milky Way was assembled over billions of years from the merging of smaller galaxies, and into “fast forward” to learn more about its ultimate fate.

“Gaia represents a dream of astronomers throughout history, right back to the pioneering observations of the ancient Greek astronomer Hipparchus, who catalogued the relative positions of around a thousand stars with only naked-eye observations and simple geometry. Over 2,000 years later, Gaia will not only produce an unrivaled stellar census, but along the way has the potential to uncover new asteroids, planets and dying stars.”

– Alvaro Giménez, ESA’s Director of Science and Robotic Exploration

Gaia will make an accurate map of the stars within the Milky Way from its location at L2 (ESA/ATG medialab; background: ESO/S. Brunier)
Gaia will make an accurate map of a billion stars within the Milky Way from its location at L2 (ESA/ATG medialab; background: ESO/S. Brunier)

Of the one billion stars Gaia will observe, 99% have never had their distances measured accurately. The mission will also study 500,000 distant quasars, search for exoplanets and brown dwarfs, and will conduct tests of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.

“Along with tens of thousands of other celestial and planetary objects,” said ESA’s Gaia project scientist Timo Prusti, “this vast treasure trove will give us a new view of our cosmic neighbourhood and its history, allowing us to explore the fundamental properties of our Solar System and the Milky Way, and our place in the wider Universe.”

Follow the status of Gaia on the mission blog here.

Source: ESA press release and Gaia fact sheet

Gaia's launch aboard an Arianespace-operated Soyuz on Dec. 19, 2013 from ESA's facility in French Guiana (ESA)
Gaia’s launch aboard an Arianespace-operated Soyuz on Dec. 19, 2013 from ESA’s facility in French Guiana (ESA)

Soyuz Spacecraft Landing: ‘The Ultimate Roller-Coaster Ride Back To Earth’

“It’s only in the moment that you’re in your spacesuit, and that the hatches are closing, that you know that four hours later, you will be back on Earth.”

That’s European Space Agency astronaut Frank De Winne talking about the emotions an astronaut or cosmonaut feels as they leave the International Space Station in a Soyuz spacecraft. The new ESA video, posted above, shows just how hard the astronauts and ground teams have to work to make sure the spacecraft gets to the right spot.

From training, to calculating orbital trajectories, to making sure the landing site in Kazakhstan is free of debris, it’s easy to see how easily those landing teams get up to dozens and dozens of people.

The undocking itself can be complex; depending on which port the Soyuz is attached to, the International Space Station itself may have to change its position to make sure the spacecraft is in the right orientation to head back to Earth.

After navigating the hazards of space, sometimes the landing site can be treacherous as well. In Kazakhstan, the mounds of snow can build up in the area in the winter time; crews need to be prepared to retrieve the spacefarers in just about any weather condition.

Luckily for the returning Expedition 36/37 crew yesterday, conditions were clear — albeit pretty cold, at 26 degrees Fahrenheit (-3 degrees Celsius). Check out Universe Today‘s full coverage of the successful crew and Olympic torch landing here.

Soyuz Lands Safely with Space Station Crew and Olympic Torch

Expedition 37 crew members Karen Nyberg of NASA, Fyodor Yurchikhin of the Russian Federal Space Agency and Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency have returned to Earth from the International Space Station, landing at 9:49 p.m. EST Sunday, Nov. 10 (02:49 UTC, 8:49 a.m. Kazakhstan time, Nov. 11), after spending 166 days in space.

The crew brought with them an Olympic torch which was launched to the station Nov. 6 and taken on a spacewalk Saturday as part of the torch relay. The torch was not lit in space, but will be used to light the Olympic flame at the Fisht Stadium in Sochi, Russia, at the start of the 2014 Winter Games in February.

Nyberg, Parmitano and Yurchikhin arrived at the station in May, and during their extended stay in space orbited Earth 2,656 times and traveled more than 112 million km (70 million miles). Parmitano conducted a spacewalk in July, becoming the first Italian to walk in space.

The crew will undergo post-landing medical evaluations and then return to their respective countries.

Soyuz Launches Expedition 37/38 to the International Space Station

The next crew of the International Space Station is on their way to orbit. Three members of the Expedition 37 crew members blasted off in a Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 20:58 UTC (4:58 p.m. EDT) Wednesday, Sept. 25, and will take a fast-track six-hour flight to the Space Station.

Update: The crew has now docked safely to the ISS, at 10:45 pm EDT (02:45 UTC).

Watch a video of the launch, below.

Michael Hopkins of NASA and Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) are scheduled to dock their Soyuz spacecraft to the Poisk module on the Russian segment of the at 02:48 UTC on Sept. 26 (10:48 p.m. EDT, Sept. 25) All the action of the launch and docking will be on NASA TV.

The crew is scheduled to open the hatches between the Soyuz spacecraft and the space station about two hours later.
Hopkins, Kotov and Ryazanskiy will be greeted by three Expedition 37 crew members who have been aboard the space station since late May: Commander Fyodor Yurchikin of Rosmosmos and Flight Engineers Karen Nyberg of NASA and Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency.

The new crew will remain aboard the station until mid-March. Yurchikhin, Nyberg and Parmitano will return to Earth Nov. 11.

NASA says the new crew will take part in several new science investigations that will focus on human health and human physiology. The crew will examine the effects of long-term exposure to microgravity on the immune system, provide metabolic profiles of the astronauts and collect data to help scientists understand how the human body changes shape in space. The crew also will conduct 11 investigations from the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program on antibacterial resistance, hydroponics, cellular division, microgravity oxidation, seed germination, photosynthesis and the food making process in microgravity.

Next Soyuz Rolls to Launchpad for Fast-Track Flight to the Space Station

A new Soyuz is now on the pad, ready to bring the next crew to the International Space Station. Launch is scheduled for at 20:58 UTC (4:58 p.m. EDT) on September 25. This is the third Soyuz spacecraft to use the new abbreviated rendezvous trajectory with the ISS, where it will reach the space station in just a few hours instead of the usual two days.

Below is a video of the rollout to the pad.

You can see a great collection of images from the rollout, a press conference and more from NASA HQ’s Flickr page.

This Soyuz rocket will send Expedition 37 Soyuz Commander Oleg Kotov, NASA Flight Engineer Michael Hopkins and Russian Flight Engineer Sergei Ryazansky on a five-and-a-half month mission aboard the International Space Station.

In the past, Soyuz manned capsules and Progress supply ships were launched on trajectories that required about two days, or 34 orbits, to reach the ISS. For tomorrow’s launch, the Soyuz will rendezvous with the space station and dock after four orbits of Earth. The new fast-track trajectory has the rocket launching shortly after the ISS passes overhead. Then, additional firings of the vehicle’s thrusters early in its mission expedites the time required for a Russian vehicle to reach the Station.

Docking to the Poisk module on the Russian segment of the station is expected to occur at 02:47 UTC on Sept. 26 (10:47 p.m. EDT, Sept. 25) All the action of the launch and docking will be on NASA TV.

The new crew will join the current Expedition 37 crew of Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin, Karen Nyberg and Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency.

Hopkins, Kotov and Ryazanskiy will remain aboard the station until mid-March. Yurchikhin, Nyberg and Parmitano, who have been aboard the orbiting laboratory since late May, will return to Earth Nov. 11, leaving Kotov as commander of Expedition 38.

Space Station Expedition 36 Crew Returns to Earth Safely

The Expedition 36 crew from the International Space Station have landed safely, touching down in their Soyuz TMA-08M spacecraft in Kazakhstan at 02:38 UTC on September 11 (10:58 p.m. EDT Sept. 10). This great overhead image by NASA photographer Bill Ingalls shows the Soyuz’s thrusters firing just before it slams into the ground, ending up on its side. On board were Commander Pavel Vinogradov and Flight Engineer Alexander Misurkin of the Russian Federal Space Agency and NASA Flight Engineer Chris Cassidy. Vinigradov, age 60, is the oldest person to make the jarring landing in the venerable Soyuz craft.

You can see undocking and landing videos below:

The three completed 166 days in space since launching in late March. Remaining on the ISS are ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano, NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg and Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, now comprising Expedition 37. They will be joined by the Oleg Kotov, Sergei Ryazansky and Michael Hopkins, set to launch on September 25.

The Soyuz Rocket and Launch Sequence Explained

Want to know more about the Soyuz rocket? This new video from ESA is based on actual lessons for astronauts about the Soyuz rocket and describes the parts of the Soyuz, the stages and launch sequence. The info here was part of ESA Basic Training for the ESA astronaut class of 2009 (also known as the Shenanigans09).

Soyuz Crew Sets Record for Fastest Trip to Space Station

The crew of Expedition 36 aboard the Soyuz TMA-09M set a record for the fastest trip ever to the International Space Station. From launch to docking, the trip took 5 hours and 39 minutes. That’s six minutes faster than the previous Soyuz that used the new “fast track” four-orbit rendezvous.

Soyuz Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg and European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Luca Parmitano docked their Soyuz to the station’s Rassvet module at 02:16 UTC on May 29 (10:16 p.m. EDT on May 28).

“Thank you for the best spacecraft, finer than the best pocket watch!” Yurchikhin radioed to Mission Control in Moscow after docking.

Docking and hatch opening videos below:

Launch took place at 20:31 UTC (4:31 p.m. EDT) Tuesday (2:31 a.m. May 29, Baikonur time).

The new abbreviated rendezvous with the ISS uses a modified launch and docking profile for the Russian ships. It has been tried successfully with three Progress resupply vehicles, and this is the second Soyuz crew ship that has used it.

In the past, Soyuz manned capsules and Progress supply ships were launched on trajectories that required about two days, or 34 orbits, to reach the ISS. The new fast-track trajectory has the rocket launching shortly after the ISS passes overhead. Then, additional firings of the vehicle’s thrusters early in its mission expedites the time required for a Russian vehicle to reach the Station.

After the hatches open at 11:55 p.m. EDT, the new trio will join Flight Engineer Chris Cassidy of NASA and Commander Pavel Vinogradov and Flight Engineer Alexander Misurkin of Roscosmos who have been on board since March 28. All six crew members will then participate in a welcome ceremony with family members and mission officials gathered at the Russian Mission Control Center in Korolev near Moscow.

Hadfield, Marshburn and Romenko Return Safely to Earth

Coming home to clear blue skies, green grass and warm weather, the Expedition 35 crew of Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, NASA’s Tom Marshburn and Russia’s Roman Romanenko has returned after spending just over five months on the International Space Station. “It’s beautiful!” one of the crew radioed in Russian just before landing. “It’s morning here.”

The Soyuz TMA-07M spacecraft landed right on target on the steppe of Kazakhstan, southeast of Dzhezkazgan at 10:31 pm EDT on May 13 (02:31 UTC and 8:31 am local time, May 14, 2013.) The crew undocked from the ISS on Monday.

Keeping with his Expedition-long constant updates via Twitter (updated by his son Evan during the return flight and landing) Hadfield’s location changed appropriately to “In a Soyuz” to “In a field in Kazahkstan.”

A few hours later, Hadfield tweeted, “Safely home – back on Earth, happily readapting to the heavy pull of gravity. Wonderful to smell and feel Spring.”

Expedition 35 Commander Chris Hadfield of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), left, Russian Flight Engineer Roman Romanenko of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), center, and NASA Flight Engineer Tom Marshburn sit in chairs outside the Soyuz Capsule just minutes after they landed in a remote area outside the town of Dzhezkazgan, Kazakhstan, on Tuesday, May 14, 2013. Hadfield, Romanenko and Marshburn are returning from five months onboard the International Space Station where they served as members of the Expedition 34 and 35 crews. Photo Credit: (NASA/Carla Cioffi)
Expedition 35 Commander Chris Hadfield of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), left, Russian Flight Engineer Roman Romanenko of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), center, and NASA Flight Engineer Tom Marshburn sit in chairs outside the Soyuz Capsule just minutes after they landed in a remote area outside the town of Dzhezkazgan, Kazakhstan, on Tuesday, May 14, 2013. Hadfield, Romanenko and Marshburn are returning from five months onboard the International Space Station where they served as members of the Expedition 34 and 35 crews. Photo Credit: (NASA/Carla Cioffi)

The crew smiled and gave thumbs up after being extracted from the Soyuz craft, which appeared to land upright and then tipped on its side. Hadfield and Marshburn will soon head back to Johnson Space Center in Houston, with Romanenko going to Star City, Russia.

The Expedition 35 crew has now wrapped up 146 days in space, 144 days on the ISS. While on board they completed 2,336 orbits around the planet and clocked almost 100 million kilometers (62 million miles) In total, Marshburn has spent 162 days in space, 166 days for Hadfield, and 334 days for Romanenko.

The Soyuz TMA-07M spacecraft is seen as it lands with the Expedition 35 crew.  Photo Credit: (NASA/Carla Cioffi)
The Soyuz TMA-07M spacecraft is seen as it lands with the Expedition 35 crew. Photo Credit: (NASA/Carla Cioffi)
The Soyuz TMA-07M spacecraft is seen as it lands. Photo Credit: (NASA/Carla Cioffi)
The Soyuz TMA-07M spacecraft is seen as it lands. Photo Credit: (NASA/Carla Cioffi)

This video shows the crews saying goodbye; then later the undocking, followed by the landing and crew extraction:

Happy Easter Sunday from the ISS ! Crew Hunts Easter Eggs & Goodies

ISS Commander Chris Hadfield plans surprise Easter egg hunt for station crew today – Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013. Credit: NASA/Chris Hadfield
Updated with more astounding ‘Easter from Space’ photos by Chris Hadfield !
Dont miss the scrumptious ‘Easter Finale’ – below

Thank you Chris ![/caption]

Hush, hush !

Don’t’ tell his crew, but Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield has secretly planned a delightful space station surprise sure to also warm the hearts of Earth’s children celebrating the joyous occasion of this Easter Sunday – and there’s delicious photos below too.

They’re going on an Easter egg hunt !

“Don’t tell my crew, but I brought them Easter Eggs :)”, tweeted Hadfield from the ISS – where he currently serves as Commander of the Expedition 35 crew.

And Hadfield sends his greetings and ‘Easter from Space’ photos to all of us down here on the good Earth on this Holy Day.

“Good Morning, Earth! A fine Easter Sunday morning to you, from the crew of the International Space Station.”

You can follow along with Hadfield’s adventures from space as – @Cmdr_Hadfield

A Full Moon. It may not be made of chocolate, but it makes for a wonderfully natural Easter egg. Credit: NASA/Chris Hadfield
A Full Moon. It may not be made of chocolate, but it makes for a wonderfully natural Easter egg. Credit: NASA/Chris Hadfield

Occasionally, Mission Control relents and lets the astronauts have fun, taking a break from their out of this world chores.

But given the weightless of space, it’s not obvious how they’ll accomplish the traditional Easter egg roll. Perhaps we’ll hear about that later.

And there’s no word back yet on Easter Bunny sightings.

Well, to get ready Hadfield has been busy stashing assorted Easter goodies & gifts in the gazillion nooks and crannies aboard the ISS – and snapping fun photos for all the kids to play along.

“Sometimes the best place to hide an item is floating right above your nose. Or in this case, your sleep pod.”

This sleep pod apparently makes for a great hiding spot for Easter eggs and gift baskets on the ISS. Credit: NASA
This sleep pod apparently makes for a great hiding spot for floating Easter eggs and gift baskets on the ISS. Credit: NASA

Hadfield just couldn’t resist the temptation of some weightless juggling – and he’s not telling if they went .. splat !!

“It appears that I’m as bad at juggling in weightlessness as I am on Earth. Hopefully I’m better at hiding them… ”

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield attempts to juggle Easter eggs aboard the International Space Station. Do they go splat ??. Credit: NASA
Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield attempts to juggle Easter eggs aboard the International Space Station. Do they go splat ??. Credit: NASA

Time will tell whether the crew of six guys are indeed clever enough to figure out all the secret hiding spots.

The Easter egg hunt could be especially trying for the three ‘new guys’ who just arrived on Thursday, March 28, on the Russian Soyuz express capsule – comprising of Russian cosmonauts Pavel Vinogradov and Alexander Misurkin and NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy. They join Hadfield, astronaut Tom Marshburn and cosmonaut Roman Romanenko who will stay aboard the station until May.

In the meantime, Hadfield is playfully diverting everyone’s concentration with gorgeous shots of Earth, like the Easter sunrise glinting across North America’s heartland – below.

An Easter sunrise glints across the Great Lakes. Heartland watershed. Credit: NASA/Chris Hadfield
An Easter sunrise glints across the Great Lakes. Heartland watershed. Credit: NASA/Chris Hadfield

And the Canadian Space Agency has now passed along an Easter greeting card.

Astronaut and cosmonaut crews have a decade’s long tradition of celebrating religious holidays in space. Probably the most famous occasion was when the three man American crew of Apollo 8 read scriptures from Genesis marking the first time in history that humans were orbiting the Moon – back in 1968.

All in all it’s been a busy week aboard the massive orbiting lab complex.

On Tuesday, March 26, the SpaceX Dragon capsule departed the station, loaded with a long awaited trove of science goodies and successfully splashed down in the ocean. Two days later the trio of new space men arriving aboard the Soyuz restored the ISS to its full crew complement of six.

Since arriving at the station just before Christmas 2012, Hadfield has been doing a stellar job enlightening folks about what it’s like to live and work in space in fun and understandable ways.

Happy Easter !

Ken Kremer

Easter Finale: The Sun, a bright point of light surrounded by profound blackness, our world glowing in-between. Credit: NASA/Chris Hadfield
Easter Finale: The Sun, a bright point of light surrounded by profound blackness, our world glowing in-between. Credit: NASA/Chris Hadfield

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Learn more about the ISS, Curiosity, SpaceX, Antares, and NASA missions at Ken’s upcoming lecture presentations:

April 20/21 : “Curiosity and the Search for Life on Mars – (in 3-D)”. Plus Orion, SpaceX, Antares, ISS, the Space Shuttle and more! NEAF Astronomy Forum, Suffern, NY

April 28: “Curiosity and the Search for Life on Mars – (in 3-D)”. Plus the Space Shuttle, SpaceX, Antares, Orion and more. Washington Crossing State Park, Titusville, NJ, 130 PM