Tag Archives: ISS

NASA buys Soyuz seats from Boeing

NASA has purchased two additional seats from Boeing on a Russian Soyuz capsule and rocket to get astronauts to ISS beyond 2019.

The reason Boeing was able to sell Russian Soyuz seats is because they have obtained them from the Russians in a deal to settle Boeing’s $320 million lawsuit over ending the Russian/Boeing Sea Launch partnership.

Dragon safely berths at ISS one day late

As expected, SpaceX’s Dragon freighter safely berthed at ISS today, one day late.

French astronaut Thomas Pesquet steered a 58-foot robotic arm to snare the unmanned Dragon at 5:44 a.m. EST, as the two spacecraft flew 250 miles above northwestern Australia. “Looks like we got a great capture,” radioed Shane Kimbrough, commander of the six-person Expedition 50 crew, to flight controllers in Houston.

The freighter will remain docked at ISS for a month while they off load it and load it with experiments being sent home.

Dragon aborts berthing with ISS

Because the spacecraft had apparently rendezvoused with ISS about 15 minutes early today, the computers on Dragon aborted the berthing, backing off to try again tomorrow.

No explanation as to why the spacecraft arrived so much earlier than expected, though it is reported to be in excellent shape.

Posted above the Gulf of Mexico, which appears very calm today.

Last Soyuz-U launches Progress to ISS

Russia today successfully launched a Progress freighter to ISS using its last Soyuz-U rocket.

The Soyuz-U has been launched hundreds of times since the 1970s, but has been replaced by Russia because it uses equipment made in Ukraine. The newer versions of the Soyuz rockets are completely home-built, but also have been plagued by quality control problems and corruption within Russia.

Posted in the air of the Gulf of Mexico in route to Belize.

The international government effort to come up with a cis-lunar ISS

The competition heats up: In the past five years the various international partners and their space agencies have been conducting studies for developing a new international space station, this time based not in Earth orbit but located near the Moon.

Following initial approval in the fall of 2014, the five space agencies formed the ISS Exploration Capabilities Study Team, IECST, which was tasked with reviewing how the ISS experience could be used to build the cis-lunar infrastructure, with determining its possible architecture and with drafting its flight plan and possible mission. Specialists also had the task of looking at all the necessary technologies, logistics and maintenance which would be required for building and operating a small habitat near the Moon. This man-tended outpost could serve as a way station to the lunar surface and as a springboard for the exploration of the Solar System, including asteroids, Mars and its moons. In fact, the outpost itself could eventually embark on a journey toward a deep-space destination. Representatives of the various space agencies also tried to see what contributions each country could make, based on their technical capabilities and realistic budgets.

All the work was conducted within the ISS program and covered by its budget.

Initially, the IECST group included representatives from space agencies only, for the exception of Russia, with Roskosmos officials needed help from the nation’s prime contractor in human space flight — RKK Energia. For the final few meetings in 2016, ESA also brought representatives from the European space industry. However NASA did not directly involve its key human space flight contractors into the IECST activities. (Instead, the US aerospace companies Boeing and Lockheed Martin continued parallel studies in cooperation with RKK Energia in Russia, EADS Astrium in Europe and Mitsubishi in Japan.) [emphasis mine]

Read the whole article. Lots of interesting details.

In a sense, this international effort is a political lobbying effort by these space agencies to come up with a single project to follow ISS that will continue the funneling of government money to them all. It is also an effort by them to structure future space exploration so all efforts will be contained within this single program, rather than allowing for many different competing efforts, both private and public. In addition, it is an attempt by NASA to come up with some long-term mission for SLS/Orion, which at present has no operational purpose and no funding beyond its first manned flight in 2021.

Finally, note the highlighted sentence above. This effort — which will benefit not just NASA but the space agencies of Russia, Europe, and Japan as well as the old big space companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Mitsubishi — is been paid entirely by American tax dollars. Something about this to me seems wrong. Shouldn’t the cost here be shared? And doesn’t it seem inappropriate for NASA to be picking the companies it wants to work with, without open bidding?

NanoRacks and Boeing to build private airlock on ISS

The competition heats up: NASA has signed an agreement with NanoRacks and Boeing to build private commercial airlock to attach to ISS in 2019 and be used for commercial operations.

Commercial opportunities through Airlock begin with cubesat and small satellite deployment from station and include a full range of additional services to meet customer needs from NASA and the growing commercial sector. Currently, cubesats and small satellites are deployed through the government-operated Japanese Kibo Airlock. Additionally, the crew on board may now assemble payloads typically flown in soft-stowage ISS Cargo Transfer Bags into larger items that currently cannot be handled by the existing Kibo Airlock. “We are very pleased to have Boeing joining with us to develop the Airlock Module,” says NanoRacks CEO Jeffrey Manber. “This is a huge step for NASA and the U.S. space program, to leverage the commercial marketplace for low-Earth orbit, on Space Station and beyond, and NanoRacks is proud to be taking the lead in this prestigious venture.”

Beyond station, the Airlock could at some future time, be detached and placed onto another on-orbit platform.

This is part of the overall transition at NASA from government-built and -run to privately-built and -run.

ISS twin study suggests weightlessness stresses the body in unexpected ways

The first preliminary results from NASA’s comparison of Scott Kelly, who spent 340 days on ISS, and his twin brother Mark, who did not, suggests that weightlessness stresses the body’s genetic system in ways not previously measured.

Preliminary results are in from NASA’s unprecedented twin study — a detailed probe of the genetic differences between astronaut Scott Kelly, who spent nearly a consecutive year in space, and his identical twin Mark. Measurements taken before, during and after Scott Kelly’s mission reveal changes in gene expression, DNA methylation and other biological markers that are likely attributable to his time in orbit.

From the lengths of the twins’ chromosomes to the microbiomes in their guts, “almost everyone is reporting that we see differences”, says Christopher Mason, a geneticist at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. He and other project scientists reported the early results on 26 January in Galveston, Texas, at a meeting of scientists working in NASA’s Human Research Program. “The data are so fresh that some of them are still coming off the sequencing machines,” Mason says.

It remains unclear at this point the medical consequences of these genetic changes. The data from this first experiment is still too preliminary, and it only involves looking at two people, a sample that is obviously too small. Nonetheless, it is a beginning, and of some significance.

Boeing unveils its spacesuit for Starliner missions

The competition heats up: Boeing today unveiled the streamlined but snazzy spacesuit it plans to use on its Starliner manned ferry flights to and from ISS.

This tidbit though I think illustrates the new mindset, to make things simpler and cheaper and more focused on their actual purpose.

Boeing’s suit, designed with the Massachusetts-based David Clark Co., weighs about 12 pounds, compared to 30 pounds for NASA’s orange suits formally called the Advanced Crew Escape Suit, or ACES. …The “get us home suit,” as Ferguson called it, couldn’t be used for a spacewalk. It’s intended to provide air and cooling to keep astronauts safe during launch and landings back on land, and during emergencies, like if a micrometeoroid strike caused a loss of cabin pressure.

Newly discovered quality control problems ground Russia’s Proton

Confirmed: As a result of its investigation into the problems during a June 9, 2016 launch, Roscosmos has now grounded its Proton rocket for at least the next six months due to the discovery of systemic quality control problems throughout the entire Proton construction process.

On January 23, the Kazakh-based division of the Interfax news agency reported the likelihood of an unusually lengthy delay with Proton missions, which could last several months. A day later, the Kommersant newspaper reported that a recent firing test had revealed technical problems with RD-0210 and RD-0212 engines, which propel the second and third stage of the Proton rocket respectively. The failure of the engine was reportedly traced to illegal replacement of precious heat-resistant alloys within the engine’s components with less expensive but failure-prone materials. The report in the Kommersant echoed the results of the investigation into the 2015 Proton failure, which found that low-quality material in the turbo-pump shaft of the engine had led to the accident.

On Jan. 20, 2017, Head of Roskosmos Igor Komarov chaired a meeting of the top managers at the Voronezh Mechanical Plant, VMZ, which manufactures rocket engines, including those used on the third stage of the Soyuz rocket and on the second and third stages of Proton. The high-profile meeting followed a decision to return already manufactured RD-0110 engines from Soyuz rockets back to Voronezh, after such an engine had been suspected as the culprit in the loss of the Progress MS-04 cargo ship on Dec. 1, 2016, as it ascended to orbit onboard a Soyuz-U rocket. [emphasis mine]

The worst part of this story, from an American perspective, is that it might result in a complete grounding of Russia’s entire rocket fleet, since some of these issues involve the Soyuz rocket as well. All manned flights to ISS will stop, which might force us to abandon it for a time.

Read the article. It suggests that Russia’s space industry is now in big big trouble.

Update: The Russians are replacing the entire Soyuz capsule that they had planned to use for the March manned mission to ISS.

“Spaceship No. 734 may be replaced by spacecraft No. 735 over a leak in the descent module [of the 734th space vehicle]. This is not yet known for sure. The spacecraft will be returned for a check,” the source said.

Bigelow proposes extending life of its ISS module beyond its two year demo

Bigelow Aerospace is in negotiations with NASA to allow use on ISS of its demonstration inflatable BEAM module beyond its planned two year test mission.

BEAM is designed for a two-year mission on the ISS. The module is closed off from the rest of the station most of the time, with astronauts periodically entering BEAM to check the status of the module and instruments mounted inside.

NASA has previously indicated that it would dispose of BEAM at the end of its two-year mission, using the station’s robotic arm to detach the module and allow it to burn up in the atmosphere. There are no immediate plans, though, for use of the docking port where BEAM is installed after that two-year mission ends, opening the possibility for an extended mission.

Robert Bigelow has previously suggested there was commercial interest in the module. As a NASA press conference in April 2016 prior to the launch of BEAM, he said there were four different groups, both countries and companies, interested in flying experiments in BEAM. “We’re hoping that, maybe in half a year or something, we can get permission from NASA to accommodate these people in some way,” he said then.

It is typical NASA behavior to throw this module out after two years, rather than find a way to use it.

Posted from a hotel room in St. Louis, Missouri.

Boeing obtains available seats on Soyuz as result of Sea Launch settlement

As part of Boeing’s settlement with Russia over the break-up of their Sea Launch partnership, the company has obtained rights to several manned Soyuz seats that are available because the Russians have cut back on the number of astronauts they are flying to ISS.

In turn, Boeing is offering these seats to NASA.

[John Elbon, vice president and general manager of space exploration at Boeing] said he expects NASA to make enter into negotiations with Boeing about the 2017 and 2018 seats shortly after a Jan. 27 deadline for companies to respond to the sources sought statement, a requirement when a government agency proposes a sole-source procurement. “Assuming that goes well, I think we would sit down and, in relatively short order, negotiate the details of this kind of arrangement,” he said.

He didn’t specify how much Boeing was proposing to charge NASA for the seats. The agency announced an agreement with Roscosmos in August 2015 for six Soyuz seats in 2018 at a total cost of $490 million, or $81.7 million per seat. “It’s a good value for NASA and the taxpayer,” Elbon said of Boeing’s proposed deal with NASA. “We wouldn’t ask them to pay more than they would have been paying before.”

What is happening here is that Boeing is trying to use these Soyuz seats as a way to recoup its losses from Sea Launch. The problem is that NASA doesn’t really need the manned flights in 2017 and 2018. They might need them in 2019, should the manned capsules that SpaceX and Boeing are building get delayed, but I am not sure that this deal will allow them to be used at that time.

A centrifuge costing 20 cents based on a toy

Scientists at Stanford have developed a centrifuge costing 20 cents to make, based on a child’s toy, that can be used in the field to separate blood samples.

According to Stanford, Prakash and post-doctoral fellow Saad Bhamla came up with the “paperfuge” while looking at toys like tops and yo-yos for inspiration. Noticing how the disc of a whirligig spins when the cords on either side are pulled, they decided to make a slow motion video of one, only to discover that it rotated at 10,000 to 15,000 RPM.

The pair started developing prototypes using a blood capillary tube mounted on a paper disc, but they went beyond simple tinkering as they recruited three undergraduate engineering students from MIT and Stanford to create mathematical models of how the whirligig could change a pulling motion into a rotary motion. Looking at variables like disc size, string elasticity, and pulling force, they combined this with equations from the physics of supercoiling DNA to gain a better understanding of the whirligig’s mechanism.

The result was a centrifuge made of 20 cents of paper, twine, and plastic that could spin at 125,000 RPM, generate 3,000 G’s, and process samples in 1.5 minutes.

I have embedded a video explaining the paperfuge below the fold. I wonder if a variation of this on ISS could do low gravity experiments.
» Read more

Update into into Dec 1 Progress failure investigation

The Russian investigation into the December 1 launch failure of a Progress freighter has come up with two possible causes, both centered on the third stage of the Soyuz rocket.

According to one theory some unforeseen dynamic loads on the tank’s structure were exacerbated by low-quality welding of the tank and led to its rupture.

Another hypothesis presumed that an anomalous operation of the RD-011o engine, (as a result of higher-than-normal vibrations in its bearings or in its turbopump), could apply unforeseen loads onto the aft bulkhead of the oxidizer tank, which is located right above the engine.

Both scenarios were based on theoretical assumptions and could not be proven without doubt due to lack of telemetry.

It appears that they might be delaying any further manned launches while they evaluate the third stages of rockets intended for future flights.

SpaceX pushes back first manned Dragon flight

The first flight of a manned Dragon capsule has been delayed about six months to May 2018.

SpaceX is now targeting a test flight taking two astronauts to the ISS in May of 2018 — about six months later than previously planned, but three months before Boeing aims to fly a similar test in its CST-100 Starliner capsule. The test flight with a crew will be preceded by an orbital flight without one that SpaceX now hopes to fly next November, again a six-month slip. Boeing plans its uncrewed test flight in June 2018

This delay had been expected. The key is to get both of these capsules operational before 2019, when our contract with the Russians to use their Soyuz capsule will expire completely.

Japan successfully launches its ISS cargo freighter

Japan today successfully launched its sixth HTV unmanned cargo freighter to ISS.

The launch had been delayed from a September launch due to “leaking pipes”, whatever that means. Its successful launch now however relieves some of the supply pressure on ISS, caused by the failed launch of Russia’s Progress on December 1 and the September 1 Falcon 9 launchpad explosion.

Details revealed about Trump’s space policy?

Detailed comments by former congressman Robert Walker, who is advising the Trump transition team on space policy, yesterday provided some further hints at what the space policy will be during a Trump administration.

Walker said that there is an intent that the National Space Council be re-instituted so as to guide all space activities. civilian, military, and commercial. Walker went on to say that the Trump team is looking for a space policy that is “disruptive, resilient, and enduring”.

For one thing, Walker said that they are looking for a much longer life for the ISS – and that it will need to be refurbished and upgraded. He speculated that it would need to be handed over to an organization or consortium eventually. They are also looking for opportunities to have the commercial sector backfill for NASA so that NASA can focus on deep space exploration. Walker was very clear on this point noting that there was an awareness of many government programs that “take a decade to do with technology that ends up being out of date”.

…Walker was asked several times about SLS/Orion – in the context of Trump’s recent comments about Boeing and Air Force One. Walker did not answer the questions specifically but went into a broader generalization that Trump is not a politician but rather that he is a deal maker. He also thought that Trump’s funding of an ice rink in New York a few years back was a good example of what kind of president he’d be. Walker went on to say that Vice President-elect Pence would be the de-facto “prime minister” and run the government while Donald Trump went out to cut deals.

The issue of Earth science eventually came up. Walker said that the Trump administration is not looking to cancel NASA climate science but rather that they wanted to transfer all of it to other agencies who might have greater expertise. Earth centric research would be transferred so as to allow NASA to focus on space exploration.

It remains unclear whether SLS/Orion will survive a Trump administration. I suspect that at this point they themselves don’t know. They intend to shift climate research from NASA to NOAA, cutting some of that funding as they do so while also changing the personnel that run the research (thus cleaning house). They also probably want to shift NASA’s publicly-stated deep space goals back to the Moon, but this will simply be the empty rhetoric of politicians. More important is the suggestion that they want to extend the life of ISS. Such an action will also require an extension of the commercial crew/cargo contracts, which will also help continue to fuel the new space industry.

Cause of Progress failure unlikely to be found

Not good: Sources in the Russian press say that it will likely be impossible to pinpoint precisely the cause of the Progress failure this week because of a lack of telemetry or data.

The causes of Thursday’s loss of the Progress cargo spacecraft are unlikely to be established, because neither telemetry data nor debris of the Soyuz-U rocket that was taking the cargo vehicle in orbit are available. “Telemetry transmission from the rocket was disrupted instantly, so it is practically impossible to establish the sequence of events to identify the causes of the emergency. As for material evidence, such as debris of the rocket’s third stage that might provide some clues, it is not available, either,” the source said.

They are still searching for debris but have so far come up empty.

Lacking data, they are now beginning to use computer modeling to try to figure out what happened. The prime suspect is the third stage engine.

Russia Progress freighter lost during launch

Due to what appears to be the failure of the third stage of its Soyuz rocket, a Russian Progress freighter bringing supplies to ISS was lost.

The Russian space agency — Roscosmos — confirmed the demise of the Progress MS-04 cargo craft in a statement, saying the automated spaceship was lost as it flew nearly 120 miles (190 kilometers) over the Tuva Republic in Southern Russia. Engineers lost telemetry during the Soyuz rocket’s third stage engine burn, and most of the vehicle’s fragments burned up in the atmosphere, Roscosmos said.

The consequences of this failure are numerous:

  • The cargo failures to ISS have been a continuing problem. Despite significant redundancy, every single cargo freighter has had failures or delays in the past two years.
  • The failure of the Soyuz rocket is a major concern, since this is the rocket that we depend on to bring humans to ISS. Nor is this the first time this year that the third stage had issues. In May the third stage cut off prematurely.
  • This failure, combined with the other quality control problems Russia has experienced in the past few years with the Soyuz capsule and the Proton rocket, adds to the concerns.

It now becomes even more imperative for the U.S. to get its own manned spacecraft capability back.

ISS Fisheye Fly-Through

An evening pause: Make sure you watch this full screen. In many ways this video tour of ISS illustrates its magnificence and its failure. It is not an easy thing to build a house in space, and it is clear that we have done it here. At the same time, ISS hardly appears to be a comfortable vessel to live in during travel to other planets. Skylab was much more livable.

Hat tip Phil Berardelli and Tom Wilson.

Possible cause of microgravity vision problems identified

Scientists think they may have located the cause of the vision problems experienced by nearly two-thirds of all astronauts after long missions in weightlessness.

Prof Alperin has been looking at another potential source of the problems – the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). This helps cushion the brain and spinal cord, and can accommodate the changes when a person moves from a lying to a standing position. “In space the system is confused by the lack of the posture-related pressure changes,” Prof Alperin explained.

The team performed high-resolution MRI scans before and shortly after spaceflights for seven long-duration astronauts. They compared the results with nine astronauts who flew into orbit for short stints on the space shuttle. The results showed that long-duration astronauts had significantly greater post-flight increases in the volume of CSF within the bony cavity of the skull that holds the eye, and also in the volume of CSF in the cavities of the brain where the fluid is produced.

The sample size is small, and the study has not yet been peer reviewed, so these results must still be taken with some skepticism.

An update on the Bigelow inflatable module on ISS

NASA has released an update on the privately built inflatable BEAM module that is presently attached to ISS and is under-going two years of testing.

NASA and Bigelow Aerospace are pleased to report that, overall, BEAM is operating as expected and continues to produce valuable data. Structural engineers at NASA JSC confirmed that BEAM deployment loads upon the space station were very small, and continue to analyze the module’s structural data for comparison with ground tests and models. Researchers at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, have found no evidence of large debris impacts in the DIDS data to date—good news for any spacecraft. And radiation researchers at JSC have found that the dosage due to Galactic Cosmic Rays in BEAM is similar to other space station modules, and continue to analyze local “trapped” radiation particles, particularly from the South Atlantic Anomaly, to help determine additional shielding requirements for long-duration exploration missions.

None of this is a surprise. It seems to me that this testing program is a bit overdone, since NASA never did anything like this in orbit for its own modules. What I think is really happening is that the two-year test of Bigelow’s module was required politically within NASA because there were too many people there opposed to using a privately-built module. I also suspect that NASA got further pressure from the contractors, such as Boeing, who had previously owned this business, and did not want the competition from Bigelow. Thus, despite the fact that Bigelow has already launched two test modules of its own and proved the viability of its designs, it was forced by NASA to do an additional test under NASA’s supervision in order to squelch this opposition.

Problems with Russia force private company to deemphasize ISS cameras

UrtheCast has been forced to write off almost $8 million because it has not been able fully use its two cameras installed on the Russian half of ISS.

The Vancouver-based company said its was writing off some of the cameras’ value because of strained relations with their Russian hosts, who recently approached UrtheCast with a request to renegotiate their deal. Russian cosmonauts installed two UrtheCast cameras on the exterior of space station in 2014. The medium-resolution camera, called Theia, captures 50-kilometer swaths of multispectral imagery sharp enough to discern features 5-meters across. The high-resolution camera, called Iris, records ultra-high-def-quality, full-color video of the Earth and still images at a resolution of one meter per pixel. Iris entered service only last year due to technical issues.

Wade Larson, UrtheCast’s co-founder and chief executive, told investors during a Nov. 10 conference call that tensions between Russia and the U.S. and its allies are spilling over into UrtheCast’s agreement with the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, and Russia’s lead space station contractor RSC Energia. “There’s been some geopolitical challenges that have influenced this relationship and candidly … that has impacted our ability to task these cameras operationally,” Larson said.

In the long run, this is very bad for the Russians. It shows them to be an unreliable business partner, which will increasingly limit their ability to attract business from outside Russia.

Russians to put first centrifuge on ISS

Russia today announced that they are developing and plan to launch the first small centrifuge ever to fly in space.

The centrifuge would be installed on an inflatable module that Russia’s Institute of Biomedical Problems, which specializes in studying the medical problems of space travel, is building, and would be used to study the effects of artificial gravity in weightlessness.

Unfortunately, the announcement doesn’t tell us much more than this. Based on previous such announcements from Russia, I would not be surprised if this project never flies.

Using the X-37B as a space ambulance?

Researchers have proposed using the Air Force’s X-37B as an ambulance in space.

Halberg said that an effective astronaut taxi should, among other things, be able to stay at the ISS for two years or more at a stretch; be capable of getting people back to Earth rapidly, within three hours or so; impose minimal G-loads on occupants; have the ability to land close to a hospital; and allow patients to lie in a supine position. These requirements all point to a space plane rather than a capsule, Halberg said — meaning SpaceX’s Dragon capsule and Boeing’s CST-100 capsule, which are scheduled to start flying NASA astronauts to and from the ISS within the next year or two, wouldn’t make the grade as ambulances.

Another private crew-carrying vehicle that’s currently in development, Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Dream Chaser space plane, is an intriguing option that bears further investigation, Robinson and Halberg said. But their initial concept study focused on the robotic X-37B, chiefly because the 29-foot-long (8.8 meters) military space plane has already racked up millions of miles in orbit, while Dream Chaser has yet to launch.

Makes sense, though once Dream Chaser is flying it will have the potential to provide the same service with far greater capabilities.

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