We live in interesting times…….

The Summer of 2015.

Not much to write home about weather wise in my neck of the woods (south Wales in the UK), but during the next few weeks there’s a veritable smorgasbord of space events to get our temperatures rising…….

They include:

  • The ESA probe Philae wakes up after a 7 month hibernation as Comet 67P nears the Sun


  • NASA probe Dawn orbits Ceres, the largest object in the Asteroid Belt and spots fascinating ‘bright spots’ on the surface.

Ceres has its 'bright spots'

  • NASA’s New Horizon probe, and its close fly by of the (minor) planet Pluto



and of course, not forgetting:

  • The return of the crew of Exhibition 43 aboard the space station, including our very own ESA astronaut  Samantha Cristoforetti


  • By financial ‘gutting’,to the tune of $330 million, of a plan to allow NASA to send its own astronauts into space aboard their OWN rockets


All these stories, and much more besides will be reported on these pages… STAY TUNED, its going to be one HECK of a ride

This week in space – 20th – 26th February 2012

In the almost endless cycle of new extra-solar planetary systems being discovered, this weeks discovery may lead scientists to re-appraise their theories of planetary formation.

The exoctically named GJ 1214b lies ‘just’ 40 light years from our solar system, orbiting a cool red dwarf star. The planet is said to be around 3 times the Earth’s diameter, but analysis by the Hubble space Telescope suggests a large percentage of its weight is water.

Added to the fact the planet orbits its parent star at a distance of only 2 million kilometeres, this makes GJ 1214b a VERY strange place indeed.

Questions scientists are asking include:

– How can water still be on the planet?
– Why was the planet not incinerated when the parent star turned into a red giant
– What form does water exist on a planet where temperatures reach in excess of 200 degrees centigrade?

I personally am looking forward to the answers.


On Friday 17th China launched another of its Beidou-2 navigation satellites. Launched from the Xichang space base in southwest China’s Sichuan province, the Long March 3C rocket lifted off at 16:12 GMT/UTC.

China Beidou launch
China Beidou launch

Beidou-2, which this satellite launch formed part, is the Chinese equivalent of the US global positioning system (GPS) system. It is hoped that by the time the system is fully operational, in around 2020, it will consist of around 35 satellites. Currently there are 11 satellites in the fleet.

Also on Friday, the MUOS satellite was lauched from launch complex 41 Cape Canaveral Air force Base. The Atlas V carrying the first MUOS (Mobile User Objective system) satellite for the American Navy lifted off at 22:15 GMT/UTC after a week of weather related delays.

Launch of Atlas V MUOS
Launch of Atlas V MUOS satellite

MUOS is a narrowband satellite system that will provide the US military and its allies simultaneous voice, video and data capability by using advanced 3G mobile communications technology. Available 24/7,it greatly enhances the current capability by more than 10 times.

The complete MUOS system, once fully deployed, in around 2015, will be a four satellite system, with an in-orbit spare.

ESA contract signed

On Febraury 24th The European Space Agency (ESA), signed the biggest satellite construction contract in its history, a $1.8 billion, six-satellite deal with Thales Alenia Space to provide meteorological services from geostationary orbit for 20 years starting in 2017.

The first two satellites will be launched in 2017 and 2019, and will offer an all new infrared sounding capability and imaging of global lightning that will provide early warning of severe storms.

In a typically European decision, that was almost derailed by wranglings between Germany and France, many European Aerospace companies will see parts of the satellite contracts come to their countries.

This week in space 13th – 19th February 2012

This week marked as exciting week in space launches with 2 successful launches, a twice aborted launch, a 6 hour spacewalk and a postponed launch. Along with that was the initial submission by NASA of its suggested 2013 budget

The first launch of the week came from the European space Agency (ESA), and marked the inaugrial launch of the new small payload rocket VEGA. This took place on Monday 13th February. The launch took place from the ESA facility in Kourou and VEGA launched successfully at 10:00 GMT.

VEGA at launch from Kourou
VEGA at launch from Kourou

The rocket, mainly developed by the Italians has been in development since 1998. As this was the 1st qualification flight of the rocket, dubbed VV01, ESA offered the payloads, which included 7 pico (or cube) satellites from European universities, LARES (a Laser Relativity Satellite to test various aspects of general relativity) and ALMASat-1. a free ride. The mission performed flawlessly. The VEGA rocket is 30 metres tall, and weighs 137 tonnes at lift off, which is 1/6 the weight of a fully loaded Ariane 5 rocket.

ESA hope that VEGA will allow smaller payloads to be launched into orbit at a greatly reduced cost. Time alone will tell, if this turns out to be the case.


This week saw the launch, at the third attempt, of the SES-4 communications satellite. Originally delayed since late December 2011, this finally launched on 14th February at 19:36 GMT/UTC from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The SES-4 satellite was carried on top of a Proton-M rocket standing 58 metres in height, weighing 705,000 Kg at lift off. The upper stage of the rocket was a Breeze-M upper stage.

Proton-M carrying SES4
Proton-M carrying SES4

Manufactured by Space Systems Loral, the SES-4 satellite is a hybrid satellite featuring both C and Ku-band payloads and provides enhanced coverage and capacity across Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Western Africa and Latin America. The satellites estimated lifespan is expected to be around 15 years.

First spacewalk of 2012

Cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS), Oleg Kononenko and Anton Shkaplerov spent 6 hours in the first spacewalk of 2012. They exited the PIRS module at 14:15 GMT/UTC on February. Wearing the Russian Orlan spacesuits, the cosmonauts had issues getting out of the hatch and were 20 minutes late starting their work. The main task was moving the Strela-1 crane from the PIRS module to the POISK module. The crane needs to be relocated so that the new Russian module, Nauka, can be installed by the Russians later in 2012.

Work undertaken by first spacewalk of 2012
Work undertaken by first spacewalk of 2012

They also installed a material experiment on the exterior of the station, and took samples from the station’s insulation to access its quality in protecting the station and also to assess the damage it has sustained so far. Due to the earlier tasks over-running the cosmonauts did not have the opportunity to install new debris shields on the Zvezda module.

Cosmonauts spacewalking outside the ISS
Cosmonauts spacewalking outside the ISS

Launch delay

The launch of a Proton-M rocket from Baikonur, carrying the Sirus FM-6 satellite that was supposed to launch in early March 2012, has been delayed for several months. It has been reported that technicians found problems with the solar panels attached to the satellite and that the satellite has now been returned to the manufacturer; Space Systems Loral.

The launch of the US Navy’s Atlas V rocket carrying the MUOS-1 (Mobile User Objective System) was twice postponed last week. On Thursday 16th February, the pre-planned 10 minute hold that occurs at T-minus 4 minuites was held at 5 minute intervals throughout the 45 minute launch window. This was to process high level wind data being sent by high altitude weather balloons that was preventing launch.

Atlas V carrying MUOS-1 awaits launch
Atlas V carrying MUOS-1 awaits launch

A final poll of the launch engineers gave a “GO” for launch, and the countdown proceeded at 23:25 GMT, until 1 minute and 14 seconds prior to launch an abort was signalled, again due to high level winds. As the abort came so close to the end of the launch window, the launch was immediately scrubbed for the day.

Atlas V carrying MUOS-1 from across Cape Canaveral
Atlas V carrying MUOS-1 from across Cape Canaveral

The following day the launch was also scrubbed; this time due to clouds and high level winds.

Atlas V as the sun sets
Atlas V as the sun sets

Launch engineers have now scheduled the launch of the MUOS-1 satellite to occur on the 24th February at 22:15 GMT/UTC. The launch window closes 44 minutes later at 22:59.

NASA Budget 2013

NASA announced on Monday 13th February a $17.7 billion budget request for fiscal year 2013. The budget includes $4 billion for space operations and $4 billion for exploration activities in the Human Exploration Operations mission directorate, including final close-out of the Space Shuttle Program, and funding for the International Space Station. $4.9 billion is allocated for science, $669 million for space technology and $552 million for aeronautics research.

What the figures don’t really show is that certain NASA budgets have been massively cut in order to continue funding the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Expenditure on the JWST, which has been plagued by cost overruns almost since the inception of the project, is set to increase to almost $700 million in 2014. To continue to fund the JWST, some projects, namely the 2016 and 2018 ExoMars missions, in collaboration with the European Space Agency will now not go ahead.

The budget will inevitably be trimmed by Congress, and in future years NASA sees its budget staying fairly flat in monetary terms.

2011 Spaceflight and launches: A review

2011 rekindled, in a MASSIVE fashion, my love of rocket launches, space exploration and astronomy. As it’s the start of a new year,I thought I would compile a retrospective, biased account of what spaceflights and rocket launches excited ME during the past year.

Here are the bare facts:

  • 7 Nations (Europe, Japan, China, Russia, United States, Iran & India) launched at least one satellite into orbit
  • There were 7 manned flights: 4 Russian, 3 American. In total 28 people were ferried into space during 2011.
  • China conducted more launches than America in 2011
  • In total, there were 84 launches
  • It was the LAST flight of the American Space Shuttle fleet
    Fully retracted RSS showing Space Shuttle Atlantis
    Fully retracted RSS showing Space Shuttle Atlantis
  • It was the FIRST flight of the Zenit-3F (carried the Russian equivalent of Hubble into space) rocket
  • There were 6 mission failures
  • Contrary to what MOST people think, construction of the International Space Station (ISS) was NOT completed in 2011. It will be completed when the Russians send up their Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM) later in 2012

In terms of planetary exploration:

  • The MESSENGER probe entered the orbit of Mercury, becoming its FIRST artificial satellite
  • GRAIL A entered lunar orbit, after a journey of 3 1/2 months
    GRAIL A as it approaches Lunar Orbit
    GRAIL A as it approaches Lunar Orbit
  • The DAWN probe entered into orbit around VESTA; the 2nd largest asteroid.
  • Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), a probe the size of a small car was launched
  • Russia dipped its toes into interplanetary probes, after a 15 year gap, with Phobos Grunt; a mission to extract soil from the surface of Phobos (A martian moon) and return the sample to Earth.

Summary by Country


The Americans conducted 3 manned launches during 2011. Some people may take issue with this but, the Space Shuttle Discovery is MY space shuttle.. Yes, the American government provided the funds, NASA and its contractors built and maintained the vehicle, and now, sadly, NASA is taking her apart, but in my own mind DISCOVERY IS MINE.

It was the 1st manned launch of 2011, and I was there to witness it. I witnessed the excitement,the sights,the SOUNDS. IT WAS AMAZING. HOW I got there is the story for another day.

Kennedy Space Centre showing Causeway
Kennedy Space Centre showing Causeway

STS-133 was the LAST flight of the Space Shuttle Discovery. Originally scheduled for launch in late 2010, the launch was delayed for a number of reasons including:

  • An orbital Maneuvering System vapor leak
  • A main engine controller problem
  • A Ground Umbilical Carrier Plate leak
  • Cracks in the external tank

Sounds like a long list, and it was. Total turnaround time was more than 111 days in total. Discovery finally launched on February 24th 2011 (and that almost didn’t happen as 5 minutes before the launch the down range computer froze and needed to be rebooted), and after a 14 day mission, that included 2 spacewalks, the installation of the Leonardo Permanent Multipurpose Module to the ISS, and the sending of a humanoid robot called Robonaut into space, Discovery landed safely on 9th March 2011.

It was followed by the final flights of Endeavour (STS-134), which carried the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS-2), a device mounted on the outside of the ISS,designed to search for various types of unusual matter by measuring cosmic rays. For more information, on the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer click HERE

The final EVER launch of a Space Shuttle; Atlantis launched on 8th July 2011 (STS-135). It was mainly a International space station (ISS) resupply mission, and carried the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM) named Raffaello and a Lightweight Multi-Purpose Carrier (LMC). As an interesting aside, the mission also took the first iphone into space. Atlantis flew with only 4 astronauts; the lowest number of astronauts to fly aboard any Space Shuttle since STS-6 back in 1983. When the wheels of STS-135 slowed to a stop, on 21st July 2011, commander Chris Ferguson’s final words (see note below), brought an end to a 30 year program. It also usehered in an insecure future for NASA’s manned spaceflight program.

STS-135 Main gear touchdown

America has effectively ‘privatised’ low Earth orbit. No NASA launches will now take astronauts or supplies to low Earth orbit or the ISS.
NASA has issued funds to various private companies to supply craft that will do this. America is currently paying Russia around $60 million to transport its astronauts to and from the ISS.

A company called SPACEX was the first commercial provider to launch a rocket and retrieve a return capsule successfully in 2011.

SpaceX capsule after  first successful orbital flight
SpaceX capsule after first successful orbital flight (Credit: SpaceX)

It will, in February, launch a mission to indirectly ‘dock’ with the American segment of the ISS to provide supplies. America does not realistically expect to have a man rated craft (a capsule capable of safely transporting an astronaut to low Earth orbit) until around 2015-16.

Notable non manned missions, included the September 10th launch of the twin GRAIL probes to the Moon. These will map the Moon with incredible accuracy and hope to discover its origin. The first probe, (GRAIL A), successfully entered lunar orbit on 31st December. For more details of the GRAIL mission click Here

The other notable mission launched in 2011 was Mars Curiousity Laboratory(MSL), launched from Cape Canaveral on 26th November, atop a Atlas V rocket. It will test Mars’ habitability and whether or not life HAS or STILL exists on ‘The Red Planet’. To find this out, the rover will carry the biggest, most advanced suite of instruments for scientific studies ever sent to the martian surface. It’s method of landing is truly revolutionary, and this will be tested when the probe is due to land on the Martian surface during August 2012.


China were VERY active in launches during 2011, surpassing America in the NUMBER of launches undertaken, to slip into second place in the annual table.

The majority of Chinese launches were either communication satellite deployments (for China and other countries), Earth observation (including environmental monitoring, oceanography), COMPASS satellite deployments (COMPASS is the Chinese answer to the American Global positioning satellite (GPS) system) or military satellites.

Without doubt, their most ambitious mission was the launch of China’s first space station module, Tiangong-1, on September 29th, followed by the launch of the unmanned module,Shenzhou 8, on 31st October. Tiangong-1 and Shenzhou 8 then docked twice in early November before Shenzhou 8 was returned to Earth on the 17th November. While, NOT a manned mission, all preparations for this mission, assumed it was manned, even to the point of putting food into the Shenzhou 8 module. The launch of Shenzhou 8, was broadcast live over the internet and satellite TV channels to much fanfare. The dockings were also shown live, on state television.

Chinese docking in space
Shenzhou 8 approaching Tiangong-1 Credit: CCTV

While China, still labours well behind Russia and America in terms of orbital accomplishments, they are catching up fast. They are certainly a country to look out for in 2012.


Russia launched, by far, the largest number of launches; 35, but also had by far the largest number of mission failures (5 if you include Phobos Grunt). They conducted 4 manned flights to the International Space Station (ISS) and carried 12 passengers (6 Russian cosmonauts, 4 American, 1 Japanese and 1 astronaut from the European Space Agency)

Even taking into consideration the launch failures during 2011, the Soyuz rocket is still by FAR, the most reliable rocket ever developed with more than 1,700 launches under its belt, going back as far as 1957, with the launch of Sputnik.

The 1st ambitious Russian science endeavour, of 2011, was the Spektr-R mission. Spektr-R is free flying satellite carrying a 10-meter radio telescope, and is an international collaborative mission consisting of Russia, Australia, Canada, Europe, India, Ukraine and USA. It will be used in conjunction with ground based radio telescopes to obtain high quality radio images of radio objects in the Universe. This was launched on 18th July 2011 from the Baikonour Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan atop a Zenit-3F rocket. Currently the probe is undergoing final checks, before it becomes fully operational. Russian radio astronomers are very excited about this mission, and have in fact dubbed the 10m telescope, the “Russian Hubble”. Time will tell if this is the case.

TheSpektr-R radio telescope undergoing final tests
Above: Crowned with a 10-meter antenna, the Spektr-R radio telescope undergoes final tests. Credit: NPO Lavochkin.

In a 7 day period in August it appeared that the ‘wheels did come off’ the Russian space program. The failures started on 17th August with the launch of the Express AM4 satellite into orbit. Although the initial launch was a success , one of the subsequent burns to take the satellite into a higher orbit failed. AM4 Failure

This was followed by the more significant failure of the Progress 44P mission to ferry supplies to the ISS. The third stage rocket failed to fire correctly, and the rocket and supplies crashed into a Siberian mountainside.

This failure caused a temporary suspension of ALL Soyuz flights while a board of inquiry was formed to discover the reason for the failures. After a few weeks, it was determined that the Progress third stage that failed had clogged tubes supplying fuel to the engines, and that the failure of the AM4 satellite was due to a software error.

These failures caused the temporary, partial, de-manning of the ISS during the later part of the year.

The launch of the next manned Soyuz TMA-22 did not take place until 14th November and was a nervy affair. Thankfully, the launch proceeded without a hitch (although it occurred in a virtual blizzard) and the 3 man crew of Anton Shkaplerov,Anatoli Ivanishin and American astronaut Daniel C. Burbank entered the ISS on the 16 November 2011 for what is to be a 5 month mission.

The biggest blow, from a scientific standpoint, occurred the previous week (8th November) when a Zenit-2M carrying the Phobos-Grunt probe (a smaller probe from China and a microbe experiment from the Planetary Society) failed to leave Earth’s orbit.

Zenit rocket carrying aloft the Phobos-Grunt probe
Zenit rocket carrying aloft the Phobos-Grunt probe

Along with the Spektr-R mission, Phobos-Grunt was being seen as a renaissance of Russian interest in space sciences. The probe marked a return to planetary exploration for the Russians, after a gap of 15 years. The objective of Phobos Grunt was to land on Phobos (a Martian Moon), collect surface material and return this to Earth. After initially making it successfully into low Earth orbit, its rockets failed to fire to send it on its way to Mars. After exhaustive attempts by many agencies to contact the probe, defeat has been admitted by the Russians and the probe will return to Earth in early 2012. To find out more about the Phobos Grunt mission click Phobos Grunt stories

The final Russian launch failure occurred on 23rd Decmeber, when a Soyuz 2.1b rocket carrying a Russian communications satellite (Meridan 5) failed and parts crashed into the Siberian Town of Novosibirsk Oblast. Meridan 5 failure. Again, it was suggested the third stage engine had failed. This failure prompted Vladimir Popovkin,the head of the Russian Space Agency, to say the Russian Spacce Industry was “in-crisis” and required route and branch reform.

The very final launch of 2011 (scheduled for 27th December) was postponed when engineers spotted an anomaly in the Breeze M upper stage of the Proton rocket during preflight testing.


ESA (European Space Agency) consolidated its position with 5 flawless launches of the powerful Ariane 5 rocket from Kourou in French Guinea.
Ariane V204 Launch 1
2011 also saw the first launch of a Soyuz rocket from Kourou, as well as Arianspace’s continued involvement launching Soyuz 2.1a/Fregat launches from Baikonur with its collaboration in Starsem.

Notable payloads carried by ESA in 2011 included the Automated Transfer vehicle (ATV), Johannes Kepler, aboard an Ariane 5 rocket in February. This was an unmanned cargo craft designed to resupply the International Space Station (ISS). Johannes Kepler carried propellant (to boost the orbit of the ISS), air & dry cargo weighing over 7,000 kgs (15,000 lbs). It had a total mass of over 20,000 kgs (44,000 lbs),making it, at the time, the heaviest payload launched by the ESA. Once the ATV had been emptied, Johannes Kepler undocked from the ISS on 20th June, and burnt up on re-entry (by design) the following day over the Pacific Ocean.

ESA also launched the first two Galileo satellites aboard a Soyuz rocket from Kourou. The Galileo satellites will give Europe a global positioning system to rival the American GPS, and Russian GLONASS systems). ESA also launched a variety of communication satellites for Saudi Arabia, Luxembourg, India and the United Arab Emirates.


Iran’s only launch in 2011, was on March 15th when the ISA (Iranian Space Agency) launched the Kavoshgar-4 (Explorer-4) rocket. The rocket carried a capsule designed to hold a live monkey, though no monkey was actually present. Since this launch, plans by the ISA to send a monkey into space seem to have been suspended.


The ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) had 3 successful launches in 2011. All occurred from the Sriharikota space centre, North of Chennai, on the East coast of India. PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle)-C16 successfully launched 3 Satellites on April 20th. This was followed by PSLV-C17, which successfully launched GSAT-12 on July 15. Finally, PSLV-C18 successfully launched 4 satellites on October 12th 2011. India launchers carried more than 3800 Kg into orbit in 2011.

Indian rocket PSLV 18 launches
Indian rocket PSLV 18 launches

I’m sure there are launches i’ve forgotten, or missions I’ve missed. But there you are. This is a list of the 2011 missions that made me tweet. Follow me on twitter

I’m VERY excited about what 2012 could bring. MSL, GRAIL, DAWN, Spektr-R, Hubble to name but a few. “Let’s see what’s out there, TOGETHER.”

NOTE: A few moments after final wheel stop of Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson’s final words were: “Mission complete, Houston, After serving the world for over 30 years, the shuttle has earned its place in history, and it has come to a final stop.”

Soyuz TMA-03M docks successfully with the ISS

Two astronauts and a Russian cosmonauts safely arrived on Friday (23rd December 2011) at the International Space Station (ISS) to begin a five-month stay in orbit.

NASA astronaut Don Pettit, Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko and Dutch astronaut Andre Kuipers of the European Space Agency (ESA) docked at the orbiting space laboratory at 15:19 GMT/UTC as the two spacecraft sailed 253 miles over southern Russia. They arrived aboard the Russian Soyuz TMA-03M spacecraft, which launched on Wednesday from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Soyuz tma-03M lifts off from frozen north

The docking marks the end of a two day journey since the launch from Baiknour. The docking was broadcast LIVE on NASA TV from around 35 minutes prior to the actual docking. At this point the Soyuz craft is still a few miles from the station.

Souyz TMA-03M approaching the ISS
Souyz TMA-03M approaching the ISS

Soyuz TMA-03M docking to ISS
Soyuz TMA-03M docking to ISS

Actual docking of Soyuz TMA-03M to ISS
Actual docking of Soyuz TMA-03M to ISS

After the initial docking, clamps form what is called a hard seal. The next few hours are spent equalising the pressures between the two craft and ensuring there aren’t any leaks.

Around 2 1/2 hours after the initial docking, the hatches between the two craft were unlocked, and the occupants of the two craft greeted each other warmly.

Andrew Kuipers being greeted aboard the ISS
Andrew Kuipers being greeted aboard the ISS

As well as a return craft, the newly docked vehicle acts as a emergency lift raft should the astronauts need to leave the International Space station in a hurry.
At an arranged news conference post docking, the Russian space Agency head Vladimir Popovkin, said that the occupants of the Soyuz craft were well, though Andre Kuipers (the Dutch astronaut) was suffering,slightly, from the affects of zero-G.

Current ISS Configuration
Current ISS Configuration with Soyuz TMA-03M

Souyz TMA-03M attached to ISS
Souyz TMA-03M attached to ISS

The arrival of the 3 personnel on the Soyuz craft brings the International Space Station back to its full occupancy of 6. This is the first time since mid November that this is the case.
The NEW 6 man crew of the ISS
The NEW 6 man crew of the ISS

A 6 man crew will be maintained on the International Space Station until Dan Burbank Daniel Burbank,flight engineers Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin leave the station in late March.

Soyuz TMA-03M lifts off from frozen north

A Soyuz TMA-03M spacecraft carrying Oleg Kononenko (Russia), Don Pettit (US) and Andre Kuipers (Holland) launched at 13:16 GMT/UTC (19:16 local time) on Wednesday 21st December towards the International Space station from a frigid Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Temperatures at the launch pad were only a few degrees fahrenheit (around -16 degrees celcius), and with a wind chill of an additional of 8-10 degrees fahrenheit, it was one of the coldest launches in recent Russian history.

Soyuz TMA-03M in snowy Kazakhstan
Soyuz TMA-03M in snowy Kazakhstan

In contrast to the last Soyuz launch though, rather than blizzard conditions it was a still and sunny launch day, but this only added to the coldness.

Soyuz TMA-03M just prior to sunset at Baikonur
Soyuz TMA-03M just prior to sunset at Baikonur

The Soyuz TMA-03M craft was launched from the same launchpad that launched both the first satellite into orbit, Sputnik 1, in 1957 and also the first manned mission, carrying Yuri Gagarin in 1961. The Soyuz family of launchers is easily the most flown, and most successful launch vehicle, with today’s launch chalking up more than 1,780 successful missions since the dawn of the space age.

Expedition 30 crew
Expedition 30 crew

All three of the crew of the expedition 30 have flown in space before.

Oleg Kononenko, the Russian, has almost 200 days in orbit having flown aboard expedition 17, and Soyuz TMA-12 in 2008, both as flight engineer. On this flight, Kononenko will sit aboard the Soyuz in the centre commander seat.

Don Pettit,an American, has flown in space for more than 175 days having flown aboard expedition 6 in 2002, and more recently on STS-126 in 2008. On this flight, the American will sit in the right hand seat.

The last of the trio, Andre Kuipers, is the first Dutch astronaut to venture into space for a second time. His previous mission was the Soyuz TMA-4 in 2004. He has spent just over 10 days in orbit. For this flight, Andre sits in the left hand ‘engineers’ seat.

Andre Kuipers being strapped in
Andre Kuipers being strapped in

The crew departed their hotel early today and while this occurred flight engineers installed the batteries in the booster, providing power for its upcoming launch. At 1:46 pm local time, the Russian State commission met and gave a “GO” for launch. The crew then arrived at building 254 at the cosmodrome and prepared for final medical checkups. Not long after that tanking of the Soyuz rocket began at the T-minus 5 hour mark. Tanking occurs up to around 90 seconds prior to launch. This is due to the evaporation of the liquid oxygen installed as fuel on the craft.

Soyuz TMA-03M with oxygen venting
Soyuz TMA-03M with oxygen venting

The Soyuz rocket is a 3 stage rocket. It burns Kerosene and liquid oxygen. The first stage provides 102 tonnes of thrust at lift off. This lift-off operation is slightly different than an American launch. At T-0 (ignition), the Russian rockets are gradually cycled through various stages of power. Intermediate power lasts for the first few seconds. During this time, a number of checks are made to ensure correct flight operation.

Soyuz TMA-03M rocket in "testing" phase
Soyuz TMA-03M rocket in "testing" phase

Only after around 6 seconds, and after all flight checks are successful, are the first stage rocket fired to 100%.

Soyuz TMA-03M rockets at full power
Soyuz TMA-03M rockets at full power

At this point the rocket leaves the tower.


Soyuz TMA-03M clears the tower
Soyuz TMA-03M clears the tower
Soyuz TMA-03M launch
Soyuz TMA-03M launch

The first stage is 68 feet in length and 24 feet in diameter. It consists of 4 strap on boosters and a single main engine. This 1st stage burns liquid fuel for the first 2 minutes and 6 seconds of the flight. At 1st stage separation, the craft is travelling at more than 3,300 miles and hour.

1st stage Separation of Soyuz TMA-03M
1st stage Separation of Soyuz TMA-03M

The second stage is 56 feet in length and 13 1/2 feet in diameter and provides 96 tonnes of thrust. It burns for around 4 minutes, at which point the Soyuz craft has reached an altitude of approximately 105 miles.

The third stage provides 30 tonnes of thrust and burns for 4 minutes and 2 seconds and provides the craft with its final “push” to orbit. At around 8 minutes into the flight the craft is travelling at more than 13,500 miles and hour.

After the 9 minute flight to orbit, flight control passes to Korov, just outside Moscow. When nominal orbit is achieved, the craft is flying in an orbit roughly 143 x 118 statue miles, travelling at more than 17,000 miles and hour. The Soyuz craft then begins what are called ‘time tag commands’. These are a sequence of automated command to unfurl the communication and solar array’s (spanning almost 35 feet) to allow the Soyuz craft to start its 2 days “catch-up” to the International Space Station.

Russian flight officials in Baikonur and Korov, near Moscow confirmed the flight went without a hitch.

At the time of the Soyuz launch the International Space Station (ISS) was flying 251 statue miles above the South Pacific, well west of the coast of Chile. The personnel aboard the station; Dan Burbank,Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin had the opportunity to watch the launch from a live feed provided by ground engineers.

The Soyuz craft will dock to the Rassvet module (the Earth facing side) on the International Space Station at 16:22 GMT/UTC (22:22 local Russian time) on Friday. Commander Dan Burbank has, where possible, decked the ISS for a ‘suitable’ welcome when their colleagues arrive.

Once the crew arrive on Friday, the station will be back up to its full complement of 6 crew. At this point, a period of intense experiment operations will take place. The occupants of the ISS will conduct more than 45 hours of experiments a week, between now and March.

As well as getting the crew into orbit the Soyuz TMA-03M craft will, when docked to the Space Station, serve as a lifeboat should the crew need to leave the ISS in a hurry.

This week in Space 12th-19th November 2011

Soyux TMA-22

After a successful launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the Soyux TMA-22 carrying two cosmonauts and an astronaut successfully docked to the Poisk Module on the Russian section of the International Space Station (ISS) on the 16th November.
TMA-22 docks with International Space Station

Top Row from left: Satoshi Furukawa, Mike Fossum, Sergei Volkov

Docking occurred at 05:25 GMT/UTC. The new crew of Russians Anton Shkaplerov,Anatoly Ivanishin and American Dan Burbank will now conduct handover activities with the current crew (see image above) who plan to leave the International Space Station, after a 6 months stay, on Monday 21st November.

Shenzhou 8

After being docked together for 12 days, the Chinese Shenzhou 8 spacecraft successfully undocked from Tiangong 1 on the 14th November 2011. After around 30 minutes, the crafts then re-docked in a much more hazardous conditions. The Chinese space agency said both the undocking and subsequent re-docking procedures went very well, and lays the groundwork for China to have an orbital space station in orbit by around 2020.

After the successful second docking, Shenzhou 8 undocked from the Tiangong 1 spacecraft and landed successfully in the Mongolian grasslands on 17th November 2011.

It was then transported to Beijing by rail, before being returned to the China Academy of Space Technology via military escort.

Shenzhou 8 transported by rail
Shenzhou 8 transported by rail

Shenzhou 8 Being returned to China Academy of Sciences
Shenzhou 8 Being returned to China Academy of Sciences

Pictures: Credit: CNTV

Hopes fade for Phobos-Grunt probe

It appears that despite all efforts from ground stations from around the world, no contact has been possible with the Phobos-Grunt probe. After an initially text book launch on the 8th November, the probe has resolutely refused to communicate with ground based stations.
Phobos Grunt launches in text book style

The initial problem was the non firing of the fregat upper stage engines that would have sent it on a trajectory towards Phobos(a Martian Moon). Russian rocket scientists had hoped to communicate with the probe to determine exactly the cause of the upper stage failure, but despite extensive attempts, no contact has been made with the probe. Without contact from the probe, scientists are unable to determine the exact nature of the fault, and also have no way of sending commands to the probe to instruct its engines to fire.
Russians give up hope on Phobos-Grunt mission

One positive point, in this whole mess. The orbit of the probe (which is carrying between 10-13 tonnes of highly toxic chemicals and a small radioactive payload) seems to be deteriorating less than had been initially predicted. This suggests that the probe is either leaking propellant, or that the rockets on board are in some way maintaining its orbit.
The launch window to allow the probe to get to Phobos closes on November 21st. Russian scientists have tentatively proposed that if the engines can be fired AFTER then, that it could perhaps conduct its mission by landing on the Moon instead of Phobos. This story was reported in Ria Novosti. At this stage though, without contact from the probe, even THIS looks unlikely. If contact, cannot be made with the probe, it is estimated it will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere in December or January of 2012.

NASA looking for new astronauts

If you have dreamed of joining the Astronaut Corps, now is the time to apply. NASA is continuing space exploration programs that will include missions beyond low Earth orbit. Some kind of degree is supposed, followed by at least 3 years of related, professional experience OR at least 1,000 hours pilot-in-command time in jet aircraft. Unfortunately, only US citizens can apply. For more information see, NASA Astronaut recruitment page

Euro SpaceTweetup

After the ESA’s highly successful 1st spacetweetup in Cologne (of which I atteneded), ESA is having another!! The European Space agency is inviting 20 Twitter followers of the Mars500 mission to a SpaceTweetup in Rome, Italy on the 6th December 2011. The purpose is to invite people who have followed the Mars500 mission throughout its 520 days to have the chance to meet @diegou and @Romain_Charles in person. Further details of the tweetup, including how to register, can be found HERE

Hypersonic test flight

An Advanced Hypersonic Weapon (AHW) demonstrator took off from the island of Kauai on a three-stage rocket booster at 1:30 AM local time yesterday, and splashed down close to its target coordinates some 2,400 miles away at the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll. This is the first successful test of a hypersonic weapon, after a series of unsuccessful test, the latest conducted earlier this year. Pentagon statement

Next week

China plans to launch 2 Satellites into space on the 25th November, although rumours persist that the launch may occur a few days earlier. I will keep you posted.

The Soyuz TMA-02M craft carrying Satoshi Furukawa, Mike Fossum, Sergei Volkov will undock from International Space Station on Monday @ 5:58 PM EST. It will land in Kazakhstan @ 9:24 pm.

It has been announced that the launch of the Mars Curiousity has been delayed by a day, to allow time for the team to remove and replace a flight termination system battery. Launch is now scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 26 Sat, 19 Nov 2011 at 10:02 a.m. EST (15:02 GMT/UTC). The launch window lasts one hour and 43 minutes. Rollout of the Atlas V rocket to the launch pad is now scheduled for Friday, Nov. 25; also a day later.

This week in Space 5th-12th November 2011

This is the second of my weekly summaries of mission statuses and launches for the week ending 12th November 2011. Some subject dominated the headlines

The “space week” was dominated by the news surrounding the launch of the Zenit rocket carrying the Phobos-Grunt mission to Mars. Also included in the payload was Chinese Yinghuo-1 Mars orbiter and the Planetary Society’s long exposure experiment. After what appeared to be a flawless launch from site 45 at the Baikonur cosmodrome on Wedenesday 9th November (20:16 GMT/UTC) the upper stage Fregat have failed to fire, which leaves the probe crippled in low Earth orbit. Extensive attempts by ESA, NASA and Russian space authorities have failed to make ANY contact with the probe, and it is feared the craft will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere within the next month.

Zenit rocket carrying aloft the Phobos-Grunt probe
Zenit rocket carrying aloft the Phobos-Grunt probe

This is a major embarressment for the Russian Space authorities for 2 reasons. Since August 24th August, and the retirement of the US Space Shuttle fleet, the eyes of the world have been on the Russian launch capability. The loss of the progress 44 resupply rocket, and the subsequent failures, that temporarily grounded the whole Soyuz fleet, was the main reason for leaving only a skeleton crew of 3 on the International Space Station (ISS)

Secondly, this was the first Russian Interplanetary probe for 15 years. It was heralded as a bold new step for Russian interplanetary science. It was a genuinely exciting mission, and the hope was that it would herald a new dawn of Russian space exploration. This is now dashed.

While attempts to contact the craft are continuing, it is felt by Russian scientists that the mission has changed from a “Phobos extract,retrieval and return” mission to a waiting game when it will plunge back into the Earth’s atmosphere.

For more details of the week’s event, visit:

Russian probes heralds new era in planetary exploration

Hopes fade in attempts to contact stricken Russian probe

Russians give up hope on Phobos Probe

After a successful launch and docking last week, the two craft are expected to remained docked for around 12 days. This could mean an undocking, perhaps as soon as tomorrow (Monday 14th November). They will then fly in close proximity to each other, and then Shenzou-8 and Tiangong-1 will dock again. They will then undock a short time later, and Shenzhou-8 is scheduled to return to Earth on November 17th.

Preparations began in earnest for the next manned mission of “Soyuz-FG” to the International Space Station (ISS) The “Soyuz TMA-22” rocket was moved from the assembly and test facility to Launch complex area 1 (“Gagarin’s Start”) on Friday.
Expedition 29 Soyuz Rollout (201111110026HQ)
NASA astronaut Dan Burbank and Russian cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin are scheduled to launch aboard the Russian-built Soyuz rocket at 04:15 GMT on November 14th 2011 (11:14 p.m. EST November 13th) from the Baikonour Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Expedition 29 Press Conference (201111120022HQ)

Tomorrow’s liftoff will be the first manned flight of the Soyuz rocket since the Soyuz rocket suffered a failure in August, with the failure of the Progress 44 mission. Since then, a Russian board of Inquiry has pinpointed the reason for the failure was clogging of the 3rd stage fuel lines.

The latest Progress 45 mission launched successfully on 30th October 2011, and docked to the Piers Russian module on the 2nd November. For more details of this story, Progress resupply launches successfully

Russians give up hope on Phobos-Grunt mission

After what appeared to be an immaculate launch from the Bakinour cosmodrome on Wednesday, EVERYTHING appears to have gone wrong with the Phobos-Grunt probe to the small Martian satellite.

Zenit rocket carrying aloft the Phobos-Grunt probe
Zenit rocket carrying aloft the Phobos-Grunt probe

The Zenit-2SB41.1 rocket blasted the Phobos-Grunt probe, along with the Chinese Yinghuo-1 Mars orbiter and the Planetary Society’s long exposure experiment into its initial orbit 9 minutes after launch. After a few hours, the first of the burns of the Upper stage Fregat was supposed to occur, followed by a longer second burn to place it in a Mars Trajectory. Neither of these burns occurred.

Frantic efforts have been made in the intervening four days. Virtually NOTHING has been heard from Roscosmos, but Russian space scientists have unofficially told various news sources they fear the probe is lost. European Space Agency (ESA) ground stations in Spain, Kourou and Australia have attempted to contact the stricken craft. NASA has also offered its ground station to assist and also the ground stations in Baikonur have all tried to make contact with it. At this point to no avail.

On Thursday, former chief specialist of the Armed Forces of Americas Vladimir Uvarov noted that interplanetary station probably would not be saved.

The mission has now changed from a Phobos “orbit and retrieve” mission to considerations of where and when the craft will re-enter the atmosphere. The three main areas of concerns are:

  • Toxic fuel
  • Radioactive material on the probe
  • Re-entry module

Toxic fuel
There appears to be little agreement as to the EXACT amount of fuel in the craft. Estimates vary from between 10-13 tonnes. However, the make-up of this mixture is well known. Nitrogen Tetraoxide is a yellow-brown liquid that is among the most common storable oxidizers used by liquid-propellant rocket engines today. It reacts upon contact with Hydrazine. Although they can be stored indefinitely in sealed containers, the liquid temperature range of Nitrogen Tetraoxide, in particular, is very narrow and it is easily frozen or vaporized. There is a general consensus that if the toxic mixture remains as a fluid at re-entry, little long term damage will be done. The worry becomes, if the fuels, frozen in orbit, does NOT thaw on re-entry and could contaminate a large area of land.

Radioactive material on the probe
The craft carries the AMC Mössbauer spectrometer, which includes two sources of cobalt-57. This is a gamma ray radioactive source with a half life of 271 days. It was to be used for close-up investigations of the mineralogy of Phobos. According to the director of the Institute of Space Research RAS Leo Green, the minute quantities of Cobalt-57 on board, do not represent any real danger on re-entry.

Re-entry module
The MAIN part of the Phobos-Grunt mission was to return around 200g of the Martian Moon to Earth. This was to be returned to Earth, via a small capsule that was due to re-enter and was to be picked up on the plains of Kazakhstan. This means there is a section of the craft that is DESIGNED to survive re-entry. Now that the craft could re-enter anywhere (between 51 degrees north and south) on the globe this small piece of the craft could cause extensive damage if it lands in a built up area.

Due to the nature of its orbit, there is no exact knowledge of WHERE and WHEN it wil re-enter the atmosphere. Many factors can affect this; including solar activity, which can thicken the Earth’s atmosphere, causing more drag on the probe; and also the behaviour of the craft itself. There are reports that the orbit of the craft is deteriorating less then predicted, which has led some experts to spectulate the craft is not simply a piece of mindless space junk, and that perhaps there is some sort of automated operation on board. Current estimates suggest though, the Phobos-Grunt will re-enter the Earth atmosphere between the end of November and the middle of December. For viewing opportunities, consult the Heaven’s above web site.

UPDATE: 22nd November
The launch window for the planned trip to Phobos has now closed, with Russian rocket engineers no nearer being able to contact the Phobos-Grunt or to discover the reason for the failure. Roscosmos deputy head Vitaliy Davydov said the situation now looked grim.
“There is little chance that we will be able to realize this mission”
“Unfortunately, we still don’t have any telemetric information from the spacecraft so we don’t understand what’s going on,” Davydov said.

Due to the fluctuating nature of the orbit, estimates of exactly WHEN the probe will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere vary wildly, with dates from as early as mid December to February being thrown about.

There is even talk, that although the Phobos mission is now not possible, that IF the probe could be contacted, and the rockets fired, that the Russian authorities might consider sending the probe to the Moon or a nearby asteroid. All these though, are mute points while the probe sits, effectively dead in space.

UPDATE: 23rd November
In quite an ironic step, as the launch window closed yesterday, it appears that an European Space Agency (ESA) ground station in Perth Australia has, now in fact, received a signal from the Phobos Grunt probe. This is the 1st signal from the probe that has been received since soon after the launch on November 8th.

The ESA engineers are working closely with Russian scientists connected to this mission to determine exactly what this means, and whether the mission, can indeed be saved, or at least the probe rockets fired and sent to another object (Moon or an asteroid)

UPDATE: 23rd November 20:50
The Phobos-Grunt probe was contacted by the Australian ground station using a low power signal, to simulate the type of signal the probe would have received on its journey to the Martian Moon. A problem associated with contacting the probe from the ground station in Australia is due to the orientation of the probe in the sky, the probe only appears very briefly and also very low in the sky. This makes communication difficult. There are 2 opportunities to contact the probe this evening. These windows are: 20:15-20:23 GMT/UTC (just passed at time of writing) and the second starts at 21:53–22:03 GMT/UTC

A new theory is being discussed why no communication has been possible with the probe. Russian scientists are suggesting that Phobos-Grunt turns itself “ON” when it is able to see the sun, in order to charge its batteries, but goes into emergency “power saving” mode within the Earth’s shadow to preserve power. When Russian scientists have attempted to contact the probe using the Baikonur ground stations, this has been when the probe has been in the Earth’s shadow, and hence in emergency “power saving” mode. If this is true, the ground station in Australia is ideally placed to communicate with the probe, as the Sun is visible to the probe as it traverses this part of the sky. This MAY explain why the probe communicated with the Perth ground station.

UPDATE: 24th November 21:50
Perhaps being able to contact the phobos Grunt probe has proved a double edged sword after all!!!!

For the two weeks after launch during which time NO communication between Earth and the probe was possible, Phobos Grunt seemed to be maintaining its orbit. In fact, to some, its orbit was slowly increasing.

Since contact has been made, initially by an Australian ground station (on the 22nd November), and now by ground stations in Russia, there appears to be a discernible DECREASE in its orbital altitude. It appears as though while it wasn’t communicating with the Earth that the probe was in some kind of “self-preservation” mode.

Now that contact HAS been made, perhaps it assumes “normal mission” parameters have been established. It doesn’t though seem to realise that its still in the grips of the Earth’s atmosphere, and without remedial action by the either the probe or Russian scientists, its eventual fiery death could have actually been hastened by contact from Earth.

Phobos-Grunt mission launches aboard Zenit

A Zenit 2 rocket successfully launched today (Tuesday 8th November) at 20:16 UTC/GMT from the Baikonur cosmodrome carrying the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft.

Zenit rocket carrying aloft the Phobos-Grunt probe
Zenit rocket carrying aloft the Phobos-Grunt probe

The mission will land a probe on Phobos;an asteroid moon of Mars, collect samples and return to Earth in August 2014. It is an hugely ambitious mission by the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, and if successful, will be the first successful Russian inter-plantary probe for almost 20 years.

It’s the heaviest planetary probe ever launched, weighing almost 15 tonnes, carrying a multitude of experiments that have never been attempted in space before.

Information of Phobos-Grunt mission

It appears the Fregat upper stage has not fired once the probe was in Low Earth Orbit. Reports suggest the probe has 3 days of battery power, so Russian rocketry engineers are frantically going to try to fire the rockets before the £200 million probe is lost for ever.

If this is true, it will mark another low point in a Russian space industry battered over the last few months, with the full glare of the world upon it.

UPDATE 9th November 12:45 UTC/GMT
It has been reported that Russian Space scientists are unsure as to the exact reason for the non-firing of the rockets. It can basically be caused by two things: namely software or hardware issues.

If the problem is related to software this gives the mission some hope of being salvaged, as instructions for firing the rockets can be resent to the Phobos-Grunt probe. Due to the low orbit of the probe, Russian scientists are unable to contact the craft until 23:00 Russian time today (9th November) in order to determine the exact nature of the failure.

If on the other hand, if it is determined to be a hardware fault, perhaps a failure of the attitude control sensors or some other critical systems, Russian scientists confirm that the mission will then become dead in the water.

On a positive note, Roscosmos has confirmed that they have received telemetry from the stricken craft. This has confirmed that onboard batteries are in the process of recharging and that the spacecraft had been oriented toward the Sun. Based on this news, Roscosmos estimates they may have as long as 2 weeks to attempt to salvage the mission.

UPDATE 9th November 18:47 UTC/GMT
It is reported that at 21.16 Moscow time, Russian specialists will try to start the engines of the interplanetary station “Phobos-Grunt” craft. As the craft is in such a low orbit currently, it is feared that within days its orbit will deteriorate to such a degree, that even if successful contact is made, and the engines restarted, there is insufficient fuel aboard the craft to be able to pull it out of Earth’s orbit, and certainly not sufficient to do this AND travel onto Phobos and complete the rest of the mission. The 24 hours are critical to the success, or otherwise of this mission.
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