NASA Weighs Risks of Unique Photo-Op at Space Station

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If all goes well and space shuttle Discovery arrives at the International Space Station the end of February, there will be a distinctive configuration: all the international partners will have a vehicle docked to the completed ISS. With the shuttle program about to retire, this configuration will be unique enough – this is the only time it will happen during the shuttle program — that NASA is considering putting three cosmonauts/astronauts in one of the Soyuz capsules that are docked to the station, have them undock and fly around to take pictures of the entire complex.

The Soyuz could photograph the station, showing the ISS in its final, completed configuration, with the shuttle attached, along with the Russian Progress and Soyuz, the European ATV and the Japanese HTV-1.


NASA managers, engineers and contractors are meeting today, Feb. 18 in a Flight Readiness Review to discuss the photo op. Of course, the Russian space agency would have to go along with the idea, as the task would not be insignificant.

Anytime a spacecraft undocks, there is the possibility of a problem or malfunction, and with people involved, the problems multiply fairly quickly. If for some reason the crew could not re-dock, they would have to deorbit and return to Earth, and the ISS crew would all of a sudden be reduced from six to three. Of course, the shuttle crew would be there, but their stay would be limited.

If the plans gets the OK, the crew doing the photo-op mission would ber Alexander Kaleri, Oleg Skripochka and Expedition 26 commander Scott Kelly.

Atlantis undocks after its first visit at Mir. Credit: Roscosmos/NASA

But you have to admit, the pictures and videos would be spectacular, and as things stand now, this would be the one and only chance to get a picture like this, a sort of family photo of the station and all the vehicles that support it.

The feat is not without precedence, however. The Russians took a similar photo on July 4, 1995, when the shuttle Atlantis was docked to the Mir space station, the first time a shuttle visited the Russian space station. Just before Atlantis undocked to return home, cosmonauts Anatoly Solovyev and Nikolai Budarin undocked in a Soyuz spacecraft and photographed the shuttle’s departure from a distance of about 300 feet.
There was a computer problem during the maneuver, however, and the cosmonauts had to dock manually and everything turned out just fine. And the picture was great, too.

The NASA Twitter feed reporting from today’s FRR meeting said the decision to do the photo op will probably not be made until during the STS-133 mission. NASA management is also deciding today when the Discovery mission will actually launch – right now it is scheduled for February 24, 2011 but they are weighing waiting until February 25, as the ATV Johnnes Kepler will arrive at the ISS on the 24th about 6 hours before the shuttle is scheduled to launch. If there were any problems with the ATV, the shuttle might have to stand down.

ATV Successfully Launches to Space Station

Here’s a chance to practice your French countdown skills: watch today’s successful launch of the European Space Agency’s Automated Transfer Vehicle “Johannes” on a Arianespace Ariane 5 rocket blasted off on Feb. 16, 2011, carrying the “Johannes Kepler” cargo-carrying vehicle to the International Space Station. It will take eight days for the ATV to arrive and dock to the aft end of the International Space Station’s Zvezda Service Module. This is the second of ESA’s resupply vehicles, and is loaded with about seven tons of supplies and propellant for use by the six crew members on the ISS.

After yesterday’s scrub of Johannes Kepler, NASA had said that a launch of the ATV today (Wednesday) might delay the launch of space shuttle Discovery for STS-133. However, today, NASA said that might not be the case. Officials will decide Discovery’s launch date at the Flight Readiness Review on February 18. Currently, STS-133’s launch is scheduled for Feb. 24.

Soyuz and 3 ISS Crewmembers Return Home

The Expedition 25 crew landed safely in Kazakhstan at 11:46 p.m. EST Thursday (Friday 10:46 a.m. Kazakhstan time). The trio — Doug Wheelock, Shannon Walker and Soyuz Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin — undocked in the Soyuz TMA-19 at 8:23 p.m. ending their 5-1/2 month stay at the International Space Station. Staying behind on the orbiting laboratory are Expedition 26 Commander Scott Kelly and Flight Engineers Alexander Kaleri and Oleg Skripochka.
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ISS Particle Detector Ready to Unveil Wonders of the Universe

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The Principal Investigator (P.I.) for the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-2 (AMS-02) experiment, Professor Samuel Ting, says that the experiment is already accruing data as it awaits its February 2011 launch date. Scheduled to fly aboard the final flight of the space shuttle Endeavour, STS-134, AMS-02 will search through cosmic rays for exotic particles, antimatter and dark matter. The experiment will be mounted to the outside of the International Space Station (ISS) and will require no spacewalks to attach.
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Flying to the Moon — From the Space Station?

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Last month the International Space Station partner agencies met to discuss the continuation of space station operations into the next decade and its use as a research laboratory. They also did a little forward thinking, and talked about some unique possibilities for the station’s future, including the potential for using the space station as a launching point to fly a manned mission around the Moon. I don’t know what our readers think, but my reactions is: this is just about the coolest idea I’ve heard in a long while! I’m having visions of a Star Trek-like space-dock, only on a smaller scale! In an article by the BBC’s Jonathan Amos, the partners said they want the ISS to become more than just a high-flying platform for doing experiments in microgravity, but also hope to see it become a testbed for the next-generation technologies and techniques needed to go beyond low-Earth orbit to explore destinations such as asteroids and Mars.


“We need the courage of starting a new era,” Europe’s director of human spaceflight, Simonetta Di Pippo, told the BBC News. For sending a mission to the Moon from the ISS, De Pippo said, “The idea is to ascend to the space station the various elements of the mission, and then try to assemble the spacecraft at the ISS, and go from the orbit of the space station to the Moon.”

One “next-generation” activity that is already planned is conducting a flight test of the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) engine on the ISS, which is the new plasma–based space propulsion technology, that could get astronauts to destinations like Mars much quicker than conventional rockets. NASA has sign a commercial Space Act with the Ad Astra company (which is lead by former astronaut Franklin Chang Diaz).

But starting a Moon mission from the ISS is really a far-reaching, kind of “out-there” concept. It would be reminiscent of Apollo 8, and be the first of a new philosophy of using the station as a spaceport, or base-camp from where travelers start their journey. The propulsion system would be built at the station then launched from orbit, just like space travelers have dreamed for decades.

Of course, this is just an idea, and probably an expensive proposition, but isn’t it wonderful that the leaders of the space agencies are even thinking about it, much less talking about it?

Of course, doing zero-g experiments would always be the main focus of the ISS, but just think….

With this type of mission, the future of spaceflight actually be as Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield describes in the video below. “This is the great stepping off point of to the rest of the universe,” says Hadfield, who will be commanding an upcoming expedition on the ISS. “This is an important moment in the history of human exploration and human capability,… and the space station is a visible sign of the future to come.”

Read more about the idea of an ISS-based Moon mission at BBC.

Two Russian Companies Plan to Build First Commercial Space Station

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Will there soon be another human destination in low Earth orbit, or is this a redundant pipe dream? Two Russian-based companies hope to build the first-ever commercial space station, named, fittingly, Commercial Space Station (CSS). Orbital Technologies and Rocket and Space Corporation Energia (RSC Energria) said in a press release that they will work together to build, launch, and operate the station, which they foresee as will being utilized by private citizens, professional crews as well as corporate researchers interested in conducting scientific programs.

“I am pleased to announce our intention to provide the global marketplace a commercially available orbital outpost,” said the CEO of Orbital Technologies, Sergey Kostenko. “Once launched and operational, the CSS will provide a unique destination for commercial, state and private spaceflight exploration missions. The CSS will be a valuable addition to the global base of orbital assets. We look forward to working with corporate entities, state governments and private individuals from around the world.”

The two companies provided no schedule for launches of the modules, or information about their funding or resources, except to advertise they are looking for partnerships.

A US-based company, Bigelow Aerospace, has also been planning to construct a commercial space station using expandable habitats. They launched prototypes in 2006 and 2007, and in 2011 plan to launch a larger 180,572 square ft. module, which they tout as “fully operational.”

“What competition do we see on the horizon?” said Robert Bigelow, founder and president on the Bigelow Aerospace website. “Nobody.”

This Russian space station, if it actually goes forward, would change that.

Reportedly, the CSS will be able to house up to seven people with “modules and technologies of the highest quality and reliability will be used in the construction of the station,” to “lead the private sector in the commercializing human spaceflight platforms in low Earth orbit.”

The CSS will be serviced by the Russian Soyuz and Progress spacecraft, as well other transportation systems available from other countries, enabled by a “unified docking system that will allow any commercial crew and cargo capability developed in the Unites States, Europe and China.”

Proposed interior of a CSS module. Credit: Orbital Technologies

Having second space station in orbit will allow the crew of the International Space Station to leave the ISS “if a required maintenance procedure or a real emergency were to occur, without the return of the ISS crew to Earth,” said Alexey Krasnov, Head of Manned Spaceflight Department, Federal Space Agency of the Russian Federation, allowing the ISS crew to have a safe haven in the event of an emergency.

But the main goal of the CSS is to be a hub for commercial activity, scientific research and development in low Earth orbit. Orbital Technologies said they already have several customers under contract from different segments of industry and the scientific community, representing such areas as medical research and protein crystallization, materials processing, and the geographic imaging and remote sensing industry.

“We also have proposals for the implementation of media projects,” said Kostenko. “And, of course, some parties are interested in short duration stays on the station for enjoyment.”

And for the future, the developers see the CSS as a “true gateway to the rest of the solar system,” said Kostenko. “A short stop-over at our station will be the perfect beginning of a manned circumlunar flight. Deep space manned exploration missions planned in the next decade are also welcome to use the CSS as a waypoint and a supply station.”

Source: Orbital Technologies

Spacewalkers Remove Failed Pump Module on ISS; Two More EVAs Needed to Complete Repairs

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Overcoming a disappointing spacewalk last weekend, today astronauts Doug Wheelock and Tracy Caldwell Dyson successfully removed the failed ammonia coolant pump module on the S1 truss of the International Space Station. But NASA managers said that at least two more EVAs will be required to complete all the repairs to the critical cooling system. Earlier, it was hoped that two spacewalks total would allow enough time, but it will take at least four. “There were a number of challenges in the first EVA that set us back, but as we looked closer at this, we were hedging our bets at how many EVAs we had ahead of us,” said Spacewalk officer David Beaver at a press briefing following the successful EVA today. “As we have done more and more work in laying this out in a stepwise fashion, it became clear to us early on that this was a much bigger set of EVAs than we originally made time for.”

He added that on orbit, the astronauts have stopped all research in order to save on the cooling system. The complex systems keeps the station from overheating and the six-member crew has relied on just one — instead of the usual two pumps –to handle the cooling ever since the one pump failed during a power surge on July 31.

“The system has been kind to us and we haven’t had any more failures,” Beaver said.

The spare pump will be installed on the S1 truss during a spacewalk that is now scheduled for Monday – originally it was set for Sunday, but NASA managers decided an extra day would help both the astronauts and the teams on the ground preparing for the EVAs.

Wheelock and Caldwell Dyson were able to close the quick disconnect valve for the final fluid connector for the failed ammonia pump module, and then detach the final fluid line from the failed ammonia pump module – which was the problem that couldn’t be overcome on the first spacewalk.

The two astronauts then extracted the pump module and stowed on another location on the truss, and Caldwell Dyson prepared the spare pump for installation on the next spacewalk on Monday.

The spacewalk lasted 7 1/2 hours, slightly shorter than Saturday’s eight-hour marathon, the longest EVA at the ISS without a space shuttle present. Wheelock and Dyson had to use decontamination procedures after the spacewalk just in case some ammonia leaked on their suits.

In response to the power-saving reconfiguration that has had to be done, the science team worked quickly to establish a plan to preserve experiment samples in the Japanese Experiment Module freezer. The on-orbit crew was able to transfer all the samples from the freezer in the Kibo laboratory to an operating freezer. No sciences samples were lost due to the pump module anomaly.

While the crew schedule has been interrupted to support the newly added spacewalks, the payload ground teams have been working closely with mission controllers to preserve and re-plan high priority activities. Other activities that can be rescheduled with little or no impact are being postponed to a later date.

Space Station Cooling System Shuts Down

Space Station

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One of the International Space Station’s external cool system pumps quit working late Saturday, likely due to mechanical failure. This triggered subsequent shutdowns in other systems. Teams on the ground are working with the six astronauts on board the station to troubleshoot the issue, but it appears at least two spacewalks will be required to remove and replace the pump. NASA officials said the problem will have to be resolved quickly, as the cooling system is extremely important for all the station’s systems. This is a redundant system, so the backup loop is now cooling the station and the crew is in no danger, but NASA does not like to work any systems “single string,” i.e., with no backup.

NASA tried restarting the pump Sunday morning, but it did not work. There are two spare pumps on orbit. ISS astronauts Doug Wheelock and Tracy Caldwell Dyson had been already scheduled to make a spacewalk on August 5 to install part of a robotic crane and to do preparation work get ready for a new module (the Permanent Logistics Module) that is due to arrive in November aboard space shuttle Discovery.

EVA teams are now looking at using the August 5 space walk for the first half of the repairs, followed by the second EVA on August 7 (Saturday). The spacewalks need special planning since the system is in a reduced power configuration.

One of the radiators which allow for cooling on board the ISS. Credit: NASA

The space station features two independent coolant loops that use ammonia circulating through huge radiators to dissipate the heat generated by the station’s electronic systems, primarily from the labs. Each loop is fed by a large tank of ammonia that includes an internal bellows pressurized by nitrogen. That pressurization system allows the loops to handle the periodic expansion and contraction of the ammonia coolant due to temperature changes when the station goes from sunlight to shadow while in orbit.

Back in April a valve failed on the coolant system, but the teams were able to troubleshoot and fix the problem without a spacewalk.

A status update from NASA listed several other systems that required powerdowns to as a result of the cooling loop shutdown in order to thermally protect them:

Redundant power to four CQs (Crew Quarters), three in Node-2, one in Kibo JPM, with both fans in each CQ remaining functional but zero fault-tolerant (crew is still Go for CQ use). Due to loss of heater power, MBS (Mobile Base System), SSRMS (Space Station Remote Manipulator System), and SPDM (Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator) are currently zero fault-tolerant. Communications systems, but there could be some issues with possible overheating. No video will be available fromNode-2, Node-3, the Columbus and Japanese modules.

Robonaut Getting Ready for ISS Mission

NASA’s Robonaut 2 will be the first human-like robot to go to space, and teams from Johnson Space Center have been putting “R2” through a battery of tests to make sure this futuristic robot is ready for its first mission. R2 will become a permanent resident of the International Space Station, and will launch on space shuttle Discovery as part of the STS-133 mission, currently planned for November 1, 2010.

The 136 kg (300-pound) R2 consists of a head and a torso with two arms and two hands. R2 Once aboard the station, engineers will monitor how the robot operates in weightlessness. R2 is undergoing extensive testing in preparation for its flight, including vibration, vacuum and radiation testing. Watch the video for more information on how R2 operates.
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