Tag Archives: ISS

NASA to extend use of private module on ISS

Capitalism in space: NASA has decided to extend the life of Bigelow’s module BEAM on ISS beyond its original two year test.

NASA’s original contract with Bigelow was to keep BEAM on ISS for two years and then jettison it, but NASA has concluded that BEAM has value as a storage compartment and wants to keep it there. NASA said the new contract would overlap the originally contracted test period, for a minimum of three years, with two options to extend for one additional year. A decision on whether to jettison it at that point or continue using it will be made thereafter.

The agency said that not only would NASA use it for stowage, but Bigelow will be allowed to use it “as a test-bed for new technology demonstrations.”

Using it makes a lot more sense than jettisoning it (the typical government way). This will also allow them to study the longevity in space of an expandable module.

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Dragon successfully returns from ISS

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s last new Dragon capsule today returned successfully from ISS, splashing down in the Pacific.

I had originally described this Dragon capsule as the first reused capsule. It is not. That capsule returned to Earth in July. Thank you to SCooper, one of my readers, for noting my mistake. It is now corrected.

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Soyuz returns three astronauts to Earth from ISS

The successful return from ISS today of three astronauts by a Soyuz capsule marked the end of Peggy Whitson’s record-breaking nine-month mission.

When she launched to the International Space Station as part of the Expedition 50 and 51 crews on the Soyuz MS-03 mission, her tenure aboard the Station was due to end after approximately six months, landing with the same two crewmembers she launched with.

But a realignment of the Russian crew manifest and a desire on the part of Roscosmos to reduce Russian Station personnel from three to two until the launch of their new Mini-Research Module resulted in an ability, unplanned at her launch, to allow Dr. Whitson to remain aboard the ISS for nine months instead of six. Her planned six month stay, assuming it lasted the entire duration, would have seen Dr. Whitson break an important record for NASA – that of the most cumulative time in space for any NASA astronaut in history. Dr. Whitson broke that record on 24 April 2017, when she accumulated 534 days off Earth – breaking the record set by Jeff Williams in 2016. With the conclusion of her current mission, Dr. Whitson will have amassed a cumulative time of 665 days 22 hours 54 minutes in orbit, more than shattering Jeff Williams’s record and placing her 8th on the list of total time in space for a single person.

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SpaceX launch today

SpaceX is scheduled to resume launches at Kennedy, after a month of range upgrades by the Air Force. You can watch it live here, or here.

Launch is presently scheduled for 12:31 Eastern time to send a Dragon capsule to ISS. At the moment all looks good for an on-time launch.

The launch was a complete success, including a picture-perfect first stage landing at Kennedy.

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Time/PBS video documentary nominated for Emmy despite factual error in title

Fake news: The Time/PBS video documentary A Year in Space has been nominated for an Emmy award, despite a blatant factual error in the show’s title.

I haven’t seen the documentary, and so it might a great achievement. Nonetheless, this mission only lasted 340 days, not a year, and to call it “a year in space” is not only false, but an outright lie. For a news organization to start out this wrong, in the title, and then for it to get an Emmy nomination, tells us a great deal about the standards of accuracy in television news.

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Tupperware in space!

Capitalism in space: Tupperware and NASA have partnered to provide space-grown gardens an artificial material for roots to grow and be watered.

First flown to the ISS in 2014, the Vegetable Production System, (aka the “Veggie” facility), is an experiment for growing plants in zero gravity in a plastic greenhouse. It consists of a collapsible plastic tent with a controllable atmosphere lit by red, blue, and green LED lamps to promote growth. Since dirt and space travel don’t mix, the seeds are embedded in rooting “pillows” that take the place of soil to retain water and give the roots somewhere to grow.

The problem is that the pillows don’t hold onto water very well, so the hydroponic system keeps drying out unless it’s tended regularly. Given how much it costs to keep an astronaut on the station, time spent watering the lettuce is about as economical as hiring a brain surgeon to mow the lawn, so a team led by Howard Levine at the Kennedy Space Center is working on some upgrades for the system.

One key example is the semi-hydroponic Passive Orbital Nutrient Delivery System (PONDS) being produced by Tupperware. With over 75 years of experience working with food-grade plastics as well as injection molding and other plastic manufacturing processes, Tupperware is producing a new disposable pillow made of plastic mesh that uses capillary forces and unusual geometries to replace gravity and hold water in like a zero gravity sponge while permitting root formation.

In other words, rather than design and built the pillows itself, as it would have in the past, NASA has hired Tupperware to build them. I am willing to bet this is saving NASA both time and money.

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Growing cucumbers in space

New research growing cucumbers on ISS has found that the roots of these plants grew in the direction of water in weightlessness.

Plant roots grow to find water, according to a process known as hydrotropism. Roots are also influenced by gravity and tend to grow downwards, called gravitropism. To find out whether gravity or water had the greater influence on root growth, investigators grew cucumber plants in the microgravity environment on board the International Space Station. In their experiments, water (or hydrotropism) had more influence in controlling root growth.

“We will be able to utilize roots’ ability to sense moisture gradients for controlling root growth orientation and efficiently growing plants in future space farms,” said Dr. Hideyuki Takahashi, senior author of the New Phytologist study.

You can read the full science paper here.

This might sound obvious, but it isn’t. Past plant growth experiments on Mir and ISS had tended to show that plant roots did not know where to grow in weightlessness, suggesting that they needed gravity to guide the roots to water. Because of this, later experiments in space provided the roots complicated engineering to guide the roots to the water.

This experiment shows that maybe that complex engineering is not necessary, or at least could be simplified a bit. At a minimum it is crucial information engineers will need to design any future gardens for interplanetary spaceships with long term weightlessness.

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Sierra Nevada picks ULA’s Atlas 5 for first two Dream Chaser cargo flights

Capitalism in space: Sierra Nevada has awarded ULA the contract for the first two cargo flights of Dream Chaser to ISS.

The announcement sets Dream Chaser’s first cargo flight to the International Space Station for launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, in 2020. A second ISS cargo flight is contracted to lift off the next year. “ULA is an important player in the market and we appreciate their history and continued contributions to space flights and are pleased to support the aerospace community in Colorado and Alabama,” said Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president of SNC’s Space Systems.

Financial terms of the contract were not disclosed.

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Reused Dragon makes second splashdown successfully

Capitalism in space: The first Dragon capsule to make a second flight to ISS splashed down and was recovered successfully today in the Pacific.

Meanwhile, they apparently have identified and fixed the cause of yesterday’s launch abort, and will try to launch a commercial satellite today at 7:37 pm Eastern.

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Russians successfully launch Progress to ISS

A Russian Soyuz rocket successfully launched a Progress freighter to ISS early today.

That’s the second Russian launch in less than a week, after a very long pause caused by the discovery of corruption in one of their major engine factories. Though the Russians presently only have two launches scheduled for July, and none scheduled for August, I suspect that this will change in their effort to clear their launch backlog.

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Worm grows 2 heads on ISS

The uncertainty of science: For reasons that are not yet understood, a flatworm fragment flown to ISS in a microgravity experiment regenerated with two heads.

But the most dramatic difference was a type of regeneration observed in one of the 15 worm fragments sent to the ISS. That worm returned to the scientists with two heads (one on each end of its body), a type of regeneration so rare as to be practically unheard of — “normal flatworms in water never do this,” Levin told Live Science. When the researchers snipped both heads off back on Earth, the middle portion regenerated into a two-headed worm again.

“And these differences persist well over a year after return to Earth!” Levin said. “Those could have been caused by loss of the geomagnetic field, loss of gravity, and the stress of takeoff and landing — all components of any space-travel experience for living systems going to space in the future,” he said.

The flatworms that flew in space showed other significant differences from the control group that stayed on Earth, further suggesting that for flatworms at least the environment of weightlessness causes more problems that were expected.

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NASA considering using used first stages for Dragon cargo launches

Capitalism in space: With SpaceX’s successful launch on June 3 of a used Dragon cargo capsule to ISS, NASA is now considering using used Falcon 9 first stages for later cargo missions.

“That question has been posed,” Ven Feng, manager of the ISS Transportation Integration Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, said during a post-launch press conference Saturday. “We are looking at it,” he added. “We’re evaluating every aspect of it very carefully, and there is no schedule yet when we might go down that path.”

NASA officials made the same kind of cautious statements several years ago when SpaceX proposed flying a used Dragon capsule. In other words, they are going to do it, it just takes the bureaucracy time to mull the idea over and finally accept it.

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Rat sperm exposed to weightlessness still produces healthy rats

An experiment that flew on ISS has found that rat sperm exposed to weightlessness and space radiation and then used on Earth to fertilize eggs still produce healthy rats.

The first issue for the researchers was how best to get the sperm up there. They decided to have the samples freeze-dried, just like instant coffee. This meant the sperm weighed almost nothing and could be kept at room temperature, ideal for travel on a rocket, or on a distant planet. The mouse sperm then spent 288 days on the ISS before coming back to Earth to be compared with fresh sperm from the same mice.

First, the scientists analysed how space travel affected the integrity of the DNA within the sperm. We know that high levels of fragmentation of sperm DNA are associated with male infertility. As expected, the scientists discovered that the space sperm had higher amounts of fragmented DNA than the sperm which had stayed on Earth. However, when used to fertilise a mouse egg, the space sperm resulted in a similar number of healthy embryos being generated – and these offspring had the ability to develop into normal, fertile adult mice. A final test the researchers did was to compare the patterns of genes being expressed within the brains of the adult mice. Here, the researchers saw no overall differences and concluded the space sperm was equally capable of generating offspring.

Obviously, this result is encouraging, but we are still a long way from nonchalantly letting women get pregnant and give birth in space. The risks on the child remain too great and are unknown.

In fact, I suspect the first time a child is born and raised in space will be an event that is unplanned.

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Results after one year on ISS for Bigelow’s inflatable module

Capitalism in space: NASA has released some of its findings learned from Bigelow’s inflatable BEAM module, attached now to ISS for one year.

During the first year, NASA and its astronauts on board the station have sought primarily to test the module’s ability to withstand space debris—as a rapidly depressurized habitat would be a bad thing in space. And indeed, sensors inside the module have recorded “a few probable” impacts from micrometeoroid debris strikes, according to NASA’s Langley Research Center. Fortunately, the module’s multiple layers of kevlar-like weave have prevented any penetration by the debris.

They have also found that the cosmic ray dosage in the module seems comparable to the rest of the station. They are now using the module to test the radiation shielding capability of several different kinds of materials.

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Spacewalkers successfully replace failed unit on ISS

In a a short spacewalk just under three hours two astronauts today successfully replaced the failed MDM data relay unit on the outside of ISS.

Some additional details about this unit:

The MDM that failed and an identical unit are part of the tier 2 command architecture and relay commands to a variety of critical station systems, including the station’s guidance, navigation and control system, the lab’s stabilizing gyros, the environmental control system, the station’s cooling system and others.

Both tier 2 computers were installed during spacewalks March 30 and March 24 respectively, replacing two older units with models featuring upgraded data processing cards. It is not yet known whether the problem with MDM-1 involved the upgraded components or some other circuitry or software

I suspect this upgraded but failed unit is going to be looked at very carefully.

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Emergency spacewalk on ISS to replace electronics relay box

Astronauts will perform an emergency spacewalk on May 23 to replace the failed MDM electronics relay box that failed on Saturday.

So, they have a spare on board, which is good. The article does note, however, that the unit that failed had only been installed less than two months ago, on March 30. This is not good. These units should last longer than two months, especially considering how critical they appear to be.

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Primary data relay electronics unit on ISS truss fails

ISS managers are meeting to make a plan to deal with the failure on Saturday of the #1 data relay electronics box on the S0 truss of the station.

The unit, called an MDM, has an identical backup in place so no station operations have so far been effected. However, that backup had failed back in 2014 and required a spacewalk to replace it, so it is not clear to me as yet whether the station has any additional spares available to replace the newly failed unit. If so, it will still require a spacewalk to make the switch.

If there is no spare, they will likely have to ship one up on the next cargo flight, as the MDM is essential for operating the solar panels and radiators as well as the robot arms.

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Report finds NASA spacesuit development over budget, behind schedule, and inadequate

Government in action! A NASA inspector general report has found that NASA’s program for developing new spacesuit is behind schedule, over budget, and unable to provide the necessary spacesuits needed for the agency’s future projects.

NASA’s spacewalking suits are in short supply, and a replacement is still years away despite the nearly $200 million spent on new technology, the space agency’s inspector general reported Wednesday. A next-generation suit for spacewalking astronauts is needed for future space travel, including trips to Mars. But a lack of a formal plan and destinations has complicated suit development, according to the report . At the same time, NASA has reduced funding for suit development, putting more priority instead on space habitats.

According to the report, NASA is dealing with a variety of design and health risks associated with the spacewalking suits used by astronauts aboard the International Space Station. The suits were developed more than 40 years ago and intended for 15 years.

More here. Essentially, the suits NASA presently uses on ISS don’t work well, there aren’t enough of them left, and they are difficult to maintain because they were designed for transport up and down on the space shuttle. At the same time NASA’s entire program to replace these suits has been mismanaged so badly that no replacement suits are anywhere on the horizon,even after spending hundreds of millions of dollars.

I predict that the next new spacesuit Americans use will be built in less than five years for a tenth the cost, by private companies.

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How Russia’s next ISS module got contaminated

Russia’s next module for ISS, MLM or Nauka, has been delayed years because of the discovery of sawdust sized metal particles throughout the module’s propulsion system. This article describes how this happened, showing the incredibly incompetence and bad quality control that caused it.

At the time, workers at Khrunichev were cutting pipelines and removing other components of the module’s propulsion system, in order to reconfigure it from its original role as a backup to the Zarya FGB module into the MLM. For example, a set of six tanks, which would be used for refueling of the ISS during the FGB mission, were removed from the exterior of the spacecraft in order to make room for scientific instruments and for the attachment of the European Robotic Arm, ERA.

The official conclusion of the probe said that the contamination had stemmed from the “lack of methodological and technological support for the operations of cutting pipeline connections in the pneumatic and hydraulic system, PGS, which was needed to guarantee the meeting of requirements for ensuring the sterility of the internal cavities in the pipelines and system hardware.” It is essentially bureaucratic speak for letting metallic dust formed during sawing off the lines pour into the interior of the remaining components.

According to one legend circulating at GKNPTs Khrunichev, the workers who were sawing off pipelines from the module thought they were dismantling the entire spacecraft for scrap. That story would sound completely unbelievable if not for other almost as incredible incidents of carelessness, poor quality control and incompetence within the industry in recent years, such as the installing navigation sensors on a Proton rocket in the upside down position or loading a Block DM-03 space tug on another Proton with too much propellant.

Read the whole story. It is most revealing of the overall systematic problems within Russia’s aerospace industry.

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Want your food kosher in space?

While some of the food can be kosher, it is presently not possible for an astronaut on ISS to maintain a completely kosher diet.

It has nothing to do with the space station per se; it has to do with our food production facility,” Kloeris told Space.com. “We have a single packaging room on the U.S. side. All of the food that’s part of our standard menu that we provide — from what I understand, in order for them to be kosher and halal, they have to be done in separate, unique facilities. Therefore, everything we package would not meet that requirement.”


Kloeris noted that it’s possible to travel with a limited allotment of kosher or halal foods, in order to honor an astronaut’s heritage; every astronaut is allowed a certain number of crew-specific containers sent to the space station, which can account for about 10 percent of their diet.

The same limitations also apply to halal food for Muslims.

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ULA successfully launches Cygnus to ISS

Capitalism in space: ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket today sucessfully launched Orbital ATK’s Cygnus freighter to ISS.

This success ends a month-long delay for the Atlas 5, which was supposed to put this Cygnus capsule in orbit last month. Hydraulic problems in the rocket and ground systems had to be fixed first.

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Soyuz returns ISS crew to Earth

A Russian Soyuz capsule safely returned three astronauts to Earth this morning.

This completes the second flight of the Soyuz-MS upgraded capsule.

The new MS series sports more efficient solar panels, a new Kurs NA approach and docking system weighing less than half that of its predecessor, additional micro-meteoroid debris shielding, and a modified docking and attitude control engine – which will add redundancy during docking and deorbit burns.

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Russia proposes extending ISS beyond 2024

The head of Roscosmos said at a space conference this week that his nation is open to extending its ISS partnership with the U.S. beyond 2024 to 2028.

Russia has several good and bad reasons for wanted to do this.

  • Their shortage of cash will make it difficult for them to fly their own station.
  • They need a space station in order to maintain the jobs that exist at their mission control as well as throughout their space industry.
  • There are many good political reasons for them to maintain this space partnership with the U.S. It prevents the U.S. from completely breaking off relations, should Russia do something the U.S. doesn’t like (such as invading a nearby country).
  • They recognize that the ability to do long term research in an orbiting space station is essential for anyone who plans future interplanetary missions.

I will let my readers decide which of these reasons are the good reasons, and which are bad.

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