Tag Archives: ISS

Russia signs contract for two more tourists to ISS

Capitalism in space: Russia has signed a new contract with the American company Space Adventures to send two more tourist flights to ISS, this time at the same time on one Soyuz capsule near the end of 2021.

The article says that the contract is funding the construction of the rocket and capsule.

This deal suggests to me that NASA’s slow-walking of the American private manned effort has resulted in those private companies losing business to the Russians. Had both SpaceX and Boeing been able to launch their capsules by now, as I think they should have, it is quite likely that one of them might have gotten this deal. Instead, they can only look from the sidelines while Russia garners income using our space station.

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Rather than use American manned capsules, NASA is considering buying more Soyuz astronaut flights

Because of the delays imposed by its safety panel in the development of two American-made manned capsules, NASA is now considering buying more Soyuz astronaut flights from Russia.

Past experience has shown the difficulties associated with achieving first flights on time in the final year of development. Typically, problems will be discovered during these test flights. The consequences of no US crew on ISS warrant protection by acquiring additional seats. The absence of U.S. crewmembers at any point would diminish ISS operations to an inoperable state,” noted a procurement document published on February 13.

NASA is considering contracting with the State Space Corporation “Roscosmos” for these services on a sole source basis for two (2) Soyuz seats and associated services to the International Space Station (ISS) on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft vehicle. This transportation would be for one crewmember in the Fall of 2019 and one crewmember in the Spring of 2020.

Remind me again: What country does NASA work for? From this I think it is Russia, not the United States. The agency has no problem putting its astronauts on a Soyuz rocket, even though Russia has had chronic quality control problems that not only caused a Soyuz launch abort last year but also had someone drill a hole in a manned capsule, an act of sabotage that Russia has still not explained or solved.

Meanwhile, it slow-walks and delays in any manner it can the manned efforts of two American companies, so that it is forced to use Russian rockets. This is unconscionable. Where is Trump, the “America-First” guy? Why isn’t he stepping in and putting an end to this political gamesmanship that clearly favors a foreign power over American companies?

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NASA extends Soyuz contract to maintain ISS presence through 2020

Faced with self-imposed delays of the launch of the privately-built manned capsules of Boeing and SpaceX, NASA has now arranged to stretch out the launch schedule of its last few Soyuz manned missions in order to maintain a presence on ISS.

According to Russian sources:

“The following scheme is planned for now: two NASA astronauts will remain on the ISS for nine months instead of the usual six. So, Nick Hague starts his mission on March 14 [2019] on the Soyuz MS-12 and returns to Earth on 18 December on the Soyuz MS-13, while Andrew Morgan will travel to the orbital station on Soyuz MS-13 on 6 July and will return on Soyuz MS-15 in April 2020″, the source said.

In the end it does appear that NASA can no longer slow-walk these American commercial manned capsules. When April 2020 rolls around, they must be operational or we will have no astronauts on board our own space station.

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NASA confirms new Dragon launch date

Confirmed: NASA today announced a new launch date, March 2, for the first unmanned test flight of SpaceX’s manned Dragon capsule.

The agency now is targeting March 2 for launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon on its uncrewed Demo-1 test flight. Boeing’s uncrewed Orbital Flight Test is targeted for launch no earlier than April.

These adjustments allow for completion of necessary hardware testing, data verification, remaining NASA and provider reviews, as well as training of flight controllers and mission managers.

This is actually the first time that NASA itself has specified a launch date, which suggests to me that they finally have admitted that they cannot hold things up any longer. Based on this announcement and assuming the weather and everything else cooperates, the launch will likely happen then, which will also allow time for SpaceX to get the launchpad reconfigured for its Falcon Heavy launch a week later.

The announcement also listed the remaining test schedule for commercial crew, as it stands now:

  • SpaceX Demo-1 (uncrewed): March 2, 2019
  • Boeing Orbital Flight Test (uncrewed): NET April 2019
  • Boeing Pad Abort Test: NET May 2019
  • SpaceX In-Flight Abort Test: June 2019
  • SpaceX Demo-2 (crewed): July 2019
  • Boeing Crew Flight Test (crewed): NET August 2019

The manned flights have not been pushed back significantly from the dates that NASA announced in October, June for SpaceX and August for Boeing. I would expect that the delays now will force these dates to get delayed as well.

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NASA delays unmanned test of manned Dragon again

While not yet confirmed, industry rumors for the past twenty-four hours are saying that NASA has once again forced a delay in the launch of SpaceX’s unmanned test of manned Dragon, pushing it back into March.

I have linked to one article, but I have been hearing these rumors from a number of sources.

This delay, if true, will cause SpaceX scheduling problems in numerous ways. First, it will conflict with the second Falcon Heavy launch, presently planned for March using the same launchpad. Second, it forces a pushback on the manned Dragon launch. Because SpaceX will use this capsule to fly its launch abort mission, it needs at least three months to prep this capsule for its reuse. Assuming that is a success, it will then need three more months to assess that launch abort flight and prepare for the manned flight. This means the manned flight cannot happen prior to October.

Why the delays? Nowhere in this article or in any of the rumors I have heard has any real reason been given. The article says the following, with the important words highlighted:

As of the first week of December 2018, SpaceX was reportedly planning towards a mid-January 2019 launch debut for Crew Dragon. By the end of December, DM-1 was no earlier than the end of January. By the end of January, DM-1 had slipped to from late-February to NET March 2019. Put in slightly different terms, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon launch debut has been more or less indefinitely postponed for the last two months, with planning dates being pushed back at roughly the same pace as the passage of time (i.e. a day’s delay every day).

Admittedly, DM’s apparently indefinite postponement may well be – and probably is – more of an artifact than a sign of any monolithic cause. While the US government’s longest-ever shutdown (35 days) undoubtedly delayed a major proportion of mission-critical work having to do with extensive NASA reviews of SpaceX and Crew Dragon’s launch readiness (known as Readiness Reviews), much of the 60+ day DM-1 delay can probably be attributed to the complexity of the tasks at hand. Being as it is the first time SpaceX has ever attempted a launch directly related to human spaceflight, as well as the first time NASA has been back at the helm (more or less) of US astronaut launch endeavors in more than 7.5 years, significant delays should come as no surprise regardless of how disappointing they may be. [emphasis mine]

The first paragraph above outlines the endless delays that appear to me to be entirely caused by NASA’s endless review process, much of it designed solely to delay things, for political reasons. SpaceX has clearly been ready to launch since December. Moreover, NASA is somewhat irrelevant to this launch, as it is run by a SpaceX launch team on a SpaceX-run launchpad. The delays are all paperwork related, imposed by NASA bureaucrats hostile to this commercial private spacecraft because it is showing the world NASA’s own inability to build its own manned rocket and spacecraft, SLS/Orion.

These NASA bureaucrats are clearly putting their own interests ahead of the interests of the nation. While they play petty political games with this launch, their delays risk putting us in the position next year of having no way to ferry our own astronauts to and from our own space station. The contract with Russia runs out this year, and Russia has said that it would be very difficult for them to quickly schedule more flights beyond that.

Meanwhile, what is Trump doing? Nothing. He is allowing this, even though he has the power to prevent it.

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Plumbing leak on ISS

During necessary power cabling rearrangement in the U.S. toilet area of ISS, the astronauts needed to disconnect some plumbing, and in doing so sprung a leak.

“While demating the QD (Quick Disconnect) that supplies potable water to WHC [toilet] at the rack the crew reported a sticky QD that caused potable water to leak into the cabin,” noted L2 ISS Status Information.

“Initial troubleshooting of the QD leak did not resolve the issue and the crew ultimately remated the QD, however not before ~11 L[iters] of water was leaked. The crew was able to clean up the water using a significant number of towels, and after isolating the potable bus at the PWD [?] the crew demated the QD at the outlet.” [emphasis mine]

Isn’t it lovely how NASA uses acronyms to make everything clear? Seriously, in plain language what appears to have happened is that, in order to prepare the toilet for the future arrival of a new urine recycling unit, they needed to reroute a power cable, and to do that they needed to disconnect the toilet from its plumbing. When they did that disconnect, however, water poured out. The highlighted and very vague language above is designed to disguise what appears to have been a very dumb error that caused the leak: They forgot to shut off the water before doing this, what I think is the “potable bus at the PWD”.

The report also says “It is not believed that any significant amount of water made its way behind any of the racks during the cleanup.” This might be true, but I bet that astronauts are going to finding tiny blobs of water in all kinds of nooks and crannies for quite a while. I hope these blobs don’t cause other problems, such as mold (a constant concern on space stations), corrosion, or electrical issues.

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Unmanned test flight of manned Dragon delayed again?

SpaceX has applied for a new launch license from the FAA for its unmanned test flight of its manned Dragion capsule that sets the launch date as no earlier than March 2nd.

This does not necessarily mean the launch is delayed until then. As noted by commenter Kirk Hilliard here at Behind the Black, “their previous license was valid through 1 March, so they may just be covering their bases here while still planning on launching under the authority of their previous license.”

Regardless, I have seen nothing to change my opinion about the cause of these delays: the NASA bureaucracy. SpaceX has been ready to do this launch since December. It has already done two successful launch rehearsals, one in which they did a successful static fire test, as is standard for the company. Both illustrate their readiness. The launch would use their leased launchpad using their launch crew. There has been no indication of any technical reason for the delays, other than a demand that SpaceX complete paperwork for NASA and the government shutdown (which has not prevented other launches from government facilities).

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SpaceX rolls manned Dragon/Falcon 9 to launchpad

Capitalism in space: This week SpaceX rolled to the launchpad the stacked manned Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket that will fly the first unmanned test flight no early than January 17, 2019.

it is understood that the rollout is a dry simulation and thus will not include any propellant. However, a static fire test including propellant load and a short burn of the first stage’s nine Merlin engines will occur at a later date.

While this week’s rollout and subsequent fit checks do not seem to have been impacted by the ongoing U.S. government shutdown, other aspects of the launch campaign will be delayed.

The launch is expected to slip past the latest official no-earlier than launch date of January 17th. Many aspects of the launch campaign require NASA oversight and thus cannot proceed without NASA’s approval. It is understood that each additional day of the government shutdown translates into about a one day delay with the launch.

The irony here is that there are really no NASA employees required for SpaceX to do the launch. It is occurring on their leased property using their equipment and their launch team. Only when the capsule arrives at ISS will NASA employees be required, and those slots have been deemed “essential” in this government shutdown and are still operating on ISS and at mission control in Houston.

If Trump ordered it, this flight could happen. SpaceX is clearly ready. It is only NASA and its bureaucracy that stands in the way.

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Drilled Soyuz returns three astronauts from ISS

Three astronauts successfully returned to Earth today, using the descent module of the Soyuz capsule whose now abandoned orbital module had been found to have a drill hole.

They are bringing back the samples of the exterior patchwork of the drill hole, obtained during a spacewalk on December 11. Hopefully we will know a bit more about this apparent sabotage soon.

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Russian astronauts complete spacewalk to inspect drill hole

Two Russian astronauts yesterday successfully completed a difficult spacewalk aimed at inspecting the drill hole that had been found on the Soyuz capsule on ISS.

Around midnight in Moscow (4 p.m. EST), the cosmonauts began cleaning the work place to prepare tackling the micro-meteoroid shielding, which turned out to be easier than work with soft insulation. In around 10 minutes, they cut and peeled off a segment of the shielding, but it took them a few minutes to actually see the hole at the edge of the exposed area and they had to cut a second smaller piece of meteoroid shielding.

They improvised an attempt to pick black material extruding from the hole with forceps, but it was very difficult to do in bulky spacesuit and due to the brittle nature of the material. Around six hours into the spacewalk, they finally proceeded with a pre-planned sampling operation.

The spacewalk was so hard because they were working on the outside of the Soyuz capsule in an area where no spacewalk was ever planned. No handholds. They had to bring them with them, and attach them.

No word yet on any conclusions about the drill hole.

Posted from Buffalo, NY. I am finally back from Israel, only to end up in a very cold and snowy place, not my favorite environments. No matter. There is a lecture for me to give tonight.

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First test flight of Dragon manned capsule delayed ten days

In order to avoid a conflict at ISS with the Dragon cargo freighter that just docked there, SpaceX has now delayed the unmanned test launch of its first Dragon manned capsule by ten days, to no earlier than January 17, 2019.

The article at the link is mostly focused on describing the experiments and cargo that the cargo freighter just brought to ISS, but it includes these scheduling details involving the unmanned test flight:

The cargo Dragon is the only vehicle currently capable of returning experiments from the International Space Station and is in relatively high demand. Thus, the worms will either return aboard this CRS-16 Dragon or wait until spring when the CRS-17 Dragon departs the orbital outpost. Regardless, once the newly delivered science experiments and cargo are removed from Dragon, the International Space Station crew will pack the craft full of return cargo before closing Dragon’s hatch and releasing it from the Station in mid-January 2019 for return to Earth.

Presently, CRS-16’s unberth and landing date is set for 13 January 2019, which at the time of the mission’s launch set up a potential overlap between CRS-16 and SpaceX’s Demonstration Mission -1 (DM-1) for the Commercial Crew Program.

At the time of CRS-16’s launch, the uncrewed DM-1 test flight had been targeting a No Earlier Than (NET) launch date of 7 January 2019 from LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center, with a docking to the International Space Station to follow on 10 January. That NET 7 January launch date officially slipped on Friday to NET 17 January.

I once again want to emphasize that the only thing that I see that might delay this launch is NASA’s effort to slow it down.

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Potentially dangerous bacteria found on ISS

Researchers have found five strains of bacteria on ISS that, while not dangerous now, has the potential to mutate into forms that could be a threat.

When Bezdan and colleagues ran the numbers on the space station microbes, however, they found that they were similar to only three – and rare ones, at that. They report similarities with strains found to date only once – one recovered from neonatal blood in a Tanzanian patient, another from a neonatal urine sample in the US, and the third from a 72-year-old woman with multiple health problems. In total, the researchers report, the eight strains thus “formed a unique ecotype”.

The ISS strains all contained genes associated with drug-resistance. They did not, however, contain combinations associated with high infection rates. Nevertheless, the results are enough for the researchers to sound a warning.

There are a lot of uncertainties here, including a lack of understanding of the effect of weighlessness on these bacteria. Nonetheless, this research highlights an important problem for future interplanetary spacecraft that has generally been ignored: Their small and limited ecology is very vulnerable to this kind of threat.

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Date set for first unmanned launch of manned Dragon

Capitalism in space: NASA announced today that SpaceX has set January 7, 2019 as the launch date for its first unmanned test flight of its manned Dragon capsule.

SpaceX is targeting Jan. 7 for launch of its first Crew Dragon commercial ferry ship on an unpiloted test flight to the International Space Station, NASA announced Wednesday, a major milestone in the agency’s drive to end its sole reliance on Russian Soyuz crew ships for carrying astronauts to orbit.

If the shakedown flight goes smoothly — and if a NASA safety probe unveiled Tuesday doesn’t turn up any show stoppers — SpaceX could be ready to launch the first piloted Crew Dragon atop a Falcon 9 rocket in the June timeframe, carrying veteran NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley to the space station. [emphasis mine]

As I said during a taping today for my appearance on WCCO radio tomorrow at 11:10 am (Central), the only thing standing in the way of SpaceX getting its manned capsule off the ground is NASA. June is a long time from now, and the agency, egged on by corrupt politicians, could easily find ways to delay that first manned launch in that time. Nor would I put it past the corrupt Washington in-crowd, led by Senator Richard Shelby (R- Alabama), having no interest in the national interest, to do what they can to sabotage that flight. What they care about is diverting tax dollars to either their own pockets or to the pockets of their allies (which also helps bring them pay-offs campaign contributions as well).

Still, it is encouraging that SpaceX is pushing forward, and that there appear to be strong elements in NASA supporting them. Keep your fingers crossed.

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Antares rocket launches Cygnus freighter to ISS

Capitalism in space: Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket today successfully launched its Cygnus freighter to ISS.

This was only the second launch this year by the division of Northrop Grumman that used to be Orbital ATK. They have been trying to launch a research satellite using their Pegasus rocket, but have had engineering issues that keep delaying it.

The leaders in the 2018 launch race remain unchanged:

31 China
18 SpaceX
11 Russia
8 ULA
8 Europe (Arianespace)

China continues to lead the U.S. in the national rankings, 31 to 30. The U.S. total now exceeds last year, and is the most this century. We have now had 91 launches this year, the most since 2014. I expect that number to go up significantly, with a real chance it will pass 100 launches for the first time since 1990, just prior to the fall of the Soviet Union.

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Soyuz rocket successfully launches Progress freighter

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

While Russia has already successfully launched three Soyuz rockets since the manned Soyuz launch abort on October 11, this was the first to use the same exact variation of the Soyuz rocket. It is expected they will now approve the manned December 3rd manned launch to ISS.

The leaders in the 2018 launch race:

31 China
18 SpaceX
11 Russia
8 ULA
8 Europe (Arianespace)

China continues to lead the U.S. in the national rankings, 31 to 29.

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Japan successfully sends small recoverable capsule back from ISS

Japan’s most recent cargo freighter to ISS, after undocking and beginning its de-orbit maneuvers, released a small recoverable capsule that was successfully recovered on Earth.

A capsule ejected from a space cargo vessel returned to Earth on Sunday, bringing back experiment samples from the International Space Station (ISS) in the first such mission for Japan.

The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) said the capsule, measuring 84 wide and 66 cm high, made a parachute-assisted splashdown in the Pacific near the island of Minamitorishima early in the morning and was retrieved later in the day.

“I think we’ve succeeded almost as planned,” Hirohiko Uematsu, technology director of JAXA, told a press conference at the agency’s Tsukuba Space Center in Ibaraki Prefecture.

The last quote above suggests that the recovery was not entirely successful, but no details were provided. Regardless, this gives the users of ISS a second way to bring experiments back from the station, with SpaceX’s Dragon the first.

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Russians say Soyuz sensor was damaged in manufacture

The Russians yesterday revealed that the sensor they have identified as the cause of the October 11 Soyuz launch failure was damaged during manufacture.

Their response:

Skorobogatov said officials are now taking steps, including putting all assembly staff through competence tests and additional training, to make sure such malfunctions don’t happen again.

The rocket producer will also take apart two other rockets that have been recently assembled and are due to launch in the coming weeks and then re-assemble them, Skorobogatov said.

They do not say how the damage occurred. It also appears that, like all government run operations, no one will be fired. (The Russians only fire people when they are going to criminally indict them.)

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Updates on Russian investigation of Soyuz launch failure

Three stories from Russia today on the investigation into last week’s launch failure during a Soyuz launch to ISS.

The first two simply outline additional changes in the Russian upcoming Soyuz launch forced upon them by the failure. It is already clear that the December launch of a new crew will be delayed also.

The third story has one piece of information that I think is intriguing:

The emergency commission looks into the Baikonur spaceport staff who worked on the Soyuz-FG carrier rocket preparing it for the launch with the manned capsule Soyuz MS-10 atop, but the liftoff ended up in a failure, a source said.

“Some members of the emergency commission are staying at the Baikonur Cosmodrome to investigate the circumstances of the failure of the Soyuz-FG rocket. They will have to check all the employees who were working on the rocket,” he said.

That they specifically mention the investigation of the employees who worked on both the rocket and the capsule suggests that they are seriously considering the possibility that one of those individuals might be the cause of both this failure as well as the drill hole in the Soyuz capsule now at ISS.

Nor can anyone blame them. The evidence so far surrounding the drill hole suggests it was done when the capsule was being prepared for launch at Baikonur. If there is an individual working there with an animus toward the Russian government or its space program, they might have possibility done something to this rocket as well.

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Updates on yesterday’s Soyuz failure

The Russian investigation into yesterday’s Soyuz launch failure has tentatively identified a malfunctioning valve as a possible source of the failure.

“The state commission has tentatively established a malfunction of the fuel dump valve of the rocket’s oxidizer tank:exhaust gas coming from the valve pushes a side section away from the center section. The valve appeared to be defective and failed to function,” the source said.

The valve passed the preflight check, he said. “It was opened before the launch, and closed afterwards consistent with the procedure,” the source said.

Once the rocket is fueled, the valve dumps redundant oxygen. “It is closed several minutes before the launch. It is supposed to open after the side section separates from the central section, but that did not happen,” the source said.

The “side section” refers to the Soyuz’s strap-on boosters. The “central section” refers to its core stage. From this report it appears the failure of the valve has been linked to a collision between the stages at separation.

“There are no final versions but the primary cause is understandable and is related to the collision of a side element making part of the first stage. A collision occurred during the separation of the first and second stages,” the Roscosmos official said.

“A deviation from the standard trajectory occurred and apparently the lower part of the second stage disintegrated. The rocket stopped its normal flight and after that the automatic system did its work,” Krikalyov said.

An element of the booster’s first stage collided with the second stage, Krikalyov said. “This could have been caused by the failure of the system of the normal separation, which should have been activated. We will analyze the causes in detail,” the Roscosmos official said.

This is obviously only a preliminary result, and should be treated with caution. Meanwhile, the investigation has also launched a criminal investigation. This doesn’t surprise me, as the Russians will sometimes consider some things, such as incompetence, as falling under criminal statutes. Considering the discovery of a drilled hole on a launched Soyuz capsule only a few weeks ago, however, I think they are probably even more paranoid than normal.

Update: Russia has decided they will launch a unmanned Soyuz mission before resuming manned flights.

This is definitely going to impact ISS operations, and cancels a December manned Soyuz launch.

The Soyuz capsules attached to ISS have a 200 day lifespan in space. Thus, the crews on board cannot stay past those dates, which means if launches get delayed for a significant period the station might end up without a crew. NASA has said ISS can be operated in this manner, but I also know they want to avoid this if at all possible.

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Commercial crew test flights delayed again

NASA today released an updated schedule for the Dragon and Starliner test flights, indicating the first Dragon flight has been pushed to January 2019.

  • SpaceX Demo-1 uncrewed flight test: January 2019 (delayed from November 2018)
  • Boeing uncrewed Orbital Flight Test: March 2019 (delayed from late 2018/early 2019)
  • SpaceX Demo-2 crewed flight test: June 2019 (delayed from April 2019)
  • Boeing Crew Flight Test: August 2019 (nominally still in mid-2019 as earlier stated)

It appears from the article that SpaceX was prepared to fly its first flight in December, meaning only a one month delay, but scheduling conflicts at ISS forced them to push it to January.

With the Boeing flights, the scheduling has less to do with delays and more do to do with setting more precise launch dates.

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ISS’s international partners express interest in extending station’s life

While NASA has been considering the end of ISS, this week its international partners all expressed interest this week in extending its life beyond 2024.

During an Oct. 1 press conference at the 69th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) here, representatives of three ISS partner agencies said they were open to extending the station’s operations to 2028 or 2030 in order to maximize the investment they’ve made in the facility as a platform for research and preparation for exploration activities beyond Earth orbit.

Jan Woerner, director general of the European Space Agency, said the issue could come up at the next triennial meeting of the ministers of ESA’s member nations, scheduled for late 2019. “At the ministerial meeting next year, the ministerial council, I will propose to go on with ISS as well as the lunar Gateway,” he said. “I believe that we will go on.”

At a separate briefing Oct. 2, Woerner emphasized the use of the station as a research platform and encouraged greater commercial activities there. “I believe we should use the ISS as long as feasible,” he said. “I always thought 2024 was the end, but now I learned it is 2028, and yesterday I learned it’s 2030. So, I will try to convince the ESA member states that ESA should be a partner in the future.” However, he noted that ESA could defer the decision on a post-2024 ISS extension until its following ministerial meeting in 2022.

Hiroshi Yamakawa, president of the Japanese space agency JAXA, also emphasized the importance of making the most of the station. “I’d like to make the most of the present ISS,” he said. “We have to maximize the output of the ISS. Whenever the deadline comes to the ISS, we would like to participate in the ISS and maximize output.” He added, though, that there was not a pressing need for Japan to decide on an ISS extension. “JAXA is requesting budgets annually, so I think in that sense JAXA is quite flexible.”

Dmitry Loskutov, head of international relations at the Russian state space corporation Roscosmos, said Russia already expected an extension. “We anticipate the continued functioning until 2028 or 2030,” he said.

While I can see many benefits for extending ISS, leaving it as a wholly government-run operation will reduce its effectiveness while increasing its cost. I also suspect all these agencies are lobbying for funding. If they can get money for both ISS and Gateway, it will increase their footprint in space significantly.

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Japan successfully launches unmanned cargo ship to ISS

Japan today used a Mitsubishi H-2B rocket to successfully launch an unmanned cargo ship to ISS.

The cargo ship will take five days to rendezvous and dock with ISS. Its most interesting piece of cargo is a small capsule with a heat shield, designed to return experiment samples to Earth.

JAXA says the the capsule has an internal volume of about 30 liters, and astronauts could load up to 44 pounds (20 kilograms) of specimens inside the landing craft, which features a thermos-like container to store refrigerated biological samples. That is a fraction of the carrying capacity of the Dragon capsule, but the new HTV Small Return Capsule will offer station managers a new way to make sure time-critical items can return to Earth for analysis.

Astronauts will assemble the return capsule after the HTV arrives at the station, and mount it into position over the HTV’s forward hatch for deployment once the supply ship leaves the station.

The capsule, which carries no engines of its own, will jettison after the HTV completes its deorbit burn. The re-entry craft will deploy a parachute and splash down in the Pacific Ocean, where recovery teams will retrieve it and bring it back to Japan for inspections.

The leaders in the 2018 launch race:

25 China
16 SpaceX
8 Russia
7 ULA
5 Europe (Arianespace)
5 Japan

For Japan to be tied with Europe this late in the year either indicates that Europe is sagging, or Japan is growing. I suspect it is partly both. In the national rankings China still leads the U.S. 25 to 24.

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Update on SpaceX and Boeing’s private commercial crew capsules

Link here. The key piece of news is that both companies now believe they meet NASA’s safety requirements.

[D]uring a panel discussion at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Space Forum here Sept. 18, executives of the two companies said they now believed their vehicles met that and related safety requirements.

John Mulholland, vice president and program manager for the commercial crew program at Boeing, said the company was assessing three separate requirements, including the overall loss of crew as well as ascent and entry risks and loss of mission. “Our teams have been working that for a number of years,” he said, noting those analyses have driven changes to the vehicle design, such as increased micrometeoroid and orbital debris protection. “Where we are now is that our analysis shows we can exceed the NASA requirements for all three of those criteria,” he said.

Benjamin Reed, director of commercial crew mission management at SpaceX, said his company was in a similar situation. “We’re looking right now to be meeting the requirements,” he said.

Kathy Lueders, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, didn’t confirm that the companies have, in fact, met those safety requirements. “We’re learning from a NASA perspective about how to understand the assessments that we’re getting from each of the contractors and how to apply it,” she said. “We at the NASA team are assessing the modeling that each of the providers has done.”

It should be understood that the requirements being discussed here really have nothing to do with actual engineering, but are based on a statistical analysis that estimates the risk to any passenger. In other words, it is a pure guess, and can be manipulated any way anyone wants. This is why NASA’s manager above is so vague. What she is really saying is that NASA is slowly being forced to accept the analysis of the contractors.

The article at the link also details the present schedule, which appears mostly unchanged (though Musk indicated there might be a slight delay in Dragon during his BFR presentation earlier this week), and the efforts by both companies to make their capsules reusable.

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Russians considering spacewalk as part of airleak investigation

The Russians are now considering having their astronauts on ISS do a spacewalk to inspect the outside of the Soyuz capsule for evidence of sealant work at the location of the drill hole that caused the airleak.

If the spacewalk is attempted, the cosmonauts would have to get to the Habitation Module, peel off soft thermal layers blanketing the spacecraft and then cut through the meteoroid shielding bordering this section of the spacecraft at a distance of around 1.5 centimeters from its pressurized hull.

To access the area of the hole on the exterior of the Soyuz, Russian officials are developing a spacewalk scenario relying on the available Strela boom, GStM. The telescopic device can be used to carry a cosmonaut secured to a special anchor at the end of the boom to a location aboard the station otherwise inaccessible to spacewalkers due to lack of railings.

The spacewalk would take place sometime in November or December. The goal is to help confirm that the sealant work was done on the ground, as well as help pinpoint when.

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Soyuz capsule was drilled after it was fully assembled

The investigation into the drillhole leak in the Soyuz capsule docked to ISS has revealed that it had to have been done after the capsule was fully assembled.

“During the analysis of those images, traces of drilling were found on the anti-meteorite shield,” the source said, adding that “the top of the drill came through the pressure hull and hit the non-gastight outer shell.”

According to another industry source, the non-gastight anti-meteorite protection is installed right before the spacecraft is taken to the final assembly workshop. “When Soyuz MS-09 has just arrived to the final assembly workshop, it was photographed in details. No hole and no signs of drilling… were found. The spacecraft was drilled later, when it was fully assembled,” the source said. He added that the anti-meteorite shield was also photographed before being installed, and no traces on it were found as well.

The source suggested that the spacecraft could be damaged either during the very last stage of works or during its 90-day stay in the checkout stand, adding that it was highly unlikely that the damage occurred during the transportation to the Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan or at the launch facility.

This narrowing of the time frame for the drilling will increase the chances that the Russians will be able to identify who did.

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NASA & Roscosmos heads to meet

After their teleconference to discuss the status of Russia’s investigation into the airleak on ISS, the heads of NASA and Roscosmos agreed to their first face-to-face meeting on October 10 at the Baikonur spaceport in Kazakhstan.

Part of the reason for the teleconference and this announcement to try to stem the wild rumors about the leak, including the accusation that it was done by an American astronaut.

I also expect them to discuss how they can jointly lobby the American Congress to fund the Gateway boondoggle, formerly (F)LOP-G.

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Japan to launch space elevator experiment to ISS

When Japan launches its unmanned freighter to ISS on September 10, it will carry a two-cubesat engineering test of some of the concepts required to build a space elevator.

In the experiment, which will be the first of its kind in space, two ultrasmall cubic satellites, or “cubesats,” will be released into space from the station. They will be connected by a steel cable, where a small container — acting like an elevator car — will move along the cable using its own motor. A camera attached to the satellites will record the movements of the container in space, according to the Japanese newspaper The Mainichi.

Each cubesat measures just under 4 inches (10 centimeters) on each side. The cubesats will be connected by a 33-foot-long (10 meters) steel cable for the “elevator car” to move along, according to the report.

I wonder if this experiment will also test some of the technology needed for generating electricity using a tether. Over the decades there have been a number of experimental attempts in space of this concept, all of which have failed for a variety of reasons, all unrelated to the concept itself.

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“Unsteady hand” drilled hole in Soyuz

According to reports in Russia today, Roscosmos head Dmitri Rogozin suggested earlier this week that an “unsteady hand” had made several attempts to drill a hole in the Soyuz capsule.

“There is another version that we are not ruling out; that this was done deliberately in space,” Russian news agency RIA Novosti quoted Rogozin saying.

He indicated there were “several attempts to use a drill” by an “unsteady hand,” scraping the metal areas surrounding the hole, according to RIA Novosti. “We can cut short the idea that this was a technological mistake made by some specialist or other,” he added.

The vision that immediately came to my mind was that of a drunk technician, unhappy about pay, bad living conditions, and corruption, stumbling into the capsule, drilling the hole. Later, after he sobered up he realized the disaster he had created for himself and tried to fix it secretly.

Then again, it is dangerous to take seriously anything Dmitri Rogozin says. He could be trying to spin the situation to his advantage.

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First private patents filed for manufacturing materials on ISS

Capitalism in space: Two private companies, Proctor & Gamble and Made in Space, have filed the first private patents for the manufacture of either materials or supplies on the International Space Station.

These patents are very important, as they specifically describe doing manufacturing in space of objects that can be used in space. There have been many previous patents for research in space, but all have usually related to research for use on Earth.

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