Washington Politicians agree 2017 NASA budget

Politicians on Capitol Hill in Washington have agreed to provide NASA with $19,508,000,000 as part of its 2017 budget. The figure, an increase on last year, but including mandatory spending (for James Webb telescope for example),will be allocated as follows:

  • Science $5,500,000,000
    • Includes over $2 billion for Earth Science to improve climate modeling, weather prediction, and natural hazard mitigation, through Earth observation from space.
    • Over $1.5 billion  for planetary science to explore the planetary bodies of our solar system, Including funds for missions to Jupiter’s moon Europa,continued operations of the Mars Opportunity, Odyssey and Express missions, and for the next New Frontiers mission.
    • $570 million of mandatory funding to ensure “on-time” launch of the James Webb Telescope.
  • Space Operations  $5,023,000,000
    • $2.8 billion allocated to Orion Crew Vehicle, Space Launch System (SLS), and Exploration Ground Systems (EGS)
  • Exploration  $4,330,000,000
    • Includes $1.4 billion to continued funding of ISS. NASA also asked to report on feasibility of operating the ISS until 2030.

      ISS
      Funds have been allocated for continued ISS operations as part of the 2017 NASA budget
    • $2.8 billion for commercial space to develop and operate safe, reliable, and affordable systems to transport crew to and from the ISS and low Earth orbit.
  • Aeronautics $640,000,000
    • $299 million is allocated for research into the next generation of ultra fuel efficient civil aircraft
    • $210 million allocated to development of new X-Planes
  • Space Technology  $686,000,000
    • $580 million to develop transformative space technologies including green space propellant and a high powered solar propulsion system
  • Education  $115,000,000
  • Safety, Security, and Mission Services $2,788,600,000
  • Construction and Environmental Compliance and Restoration $388,000,000
  • Inspector General $37,400,000
    • mainly dealing with auditing of NASA spending

The House debated the bill, the snappily titled ‘National Aeronautics and Space Administration Transition Authorization Act of 2017′ , on 7th March, after a successful debate in the Senate in February.

Senator Ted Cruz – Sponsor of NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017

It was debated in the House for less than 30 minutes. Following discussion, and virtually no objections, the bill was agreed by voice vote.

The bill will now be passed to the President, to become law.

 

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

_83621422_comet_on_5_june_2015_navcam

  • 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

new-horizons-pluto-lorri-images-june-1-2015

 

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

606x340_307943

  • 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

International Space Station passes over UK

The International Space Station (ISS) is the largest man-made structure in space. The size of a football field, it circles the Earth every 90 minutes, at an altitude of around 230 miles (370 km) and is currently visible in the UK around sunset. It appears, normally from the West, moving towards the East, as a bright, slow moving star (normally the brightest) in the sky. Passes can vary from a few seconds, to around 6 minutes.

International Space Station
The International Space Station in May 2010.

The international Space Station project is an collaboration between the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan, and Canada. It’s current price tag stands at an enormous $100 BILLION.
It is permanently manned usually by between 3 and 6 occupants. To find out who’s aboard the ISS, visit Who’s in space?

I used to take many photographs of the Space Station, as it past, even had one published, but haven’t taken an image of an ISS flyby for MONTHS. Here are my latest attempts, as it passed overhead on Saturday June 14th 2014.

Most of these images are multiple exposures, each around 10 seconds long and stitched together using Photoshop.

International Space Station pass over UK 140614

The ISS passing over Pontypridd.

ISS pass over UK 2

International Space Station pass over UK 3

International Space Station pass over UK 4

International Space Station pass over UK 5

To find out when the International Space Station passes over your area, consult Heavens above, NASA Spot the Station, or type ‘iss flyover’ into google.

X37-B lands after monumental stay in space

Perhaps taking some of the shine off the Chinese launch today, the X37-B launch vehicle landed today (Saturday 16th June) at Vandenburg Air Force Base in California at 09:48 EDT after nearly 469 days (15 months) in orbit.

This was only the second flight of the military launch vehicle and smashes the previous test flight record (225 days) of the inaugural flight of the X37-B back in 2010. It was launched, in a mission designated USA-226, aboard an Atlas V rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on 5th March 2011. The mission was classified and described by the U.S. military as an effort to test new space technologies. In late November 2011, the U S Air Force announced that it would extend the second mission of the X37-B beyond its 270-day duration.

OTV-2 launch (Atlas V carrying X37-B)
OTV-2 launch (Atlas V carrying X37-B)

Total mission elasped time at “wheel stop” was 468 days, 13 hours and 2 minutes. The craft orbited the Earth more than 7,000 times.
X37-B after touchdown
X37-B after touchdown

X37-B soon after landing
X37-B soon after landing

The X37-B craft is loosely based on the larger American Space Shuttle, carries no crew, and is a fully autonomous vehicle, capable of landing itself with no human intervention. Being almost 30 ft (9 metres) long, it is sent into orbit on top of an Atlas V rocket

X-37B inside payload fairing of Atlas V before launch
X-37B inside payload fairing of Atlas V before launch

The project was initially conceived by NASA,in conjunction with the US Air force, but due to budgetary contraints and other factors the project became the sole responsibility of the Department of Defence in September 2004. The nature of the mission was highly classified, with very few details being made available to the public.

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

VEGA
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.

SES-4

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.

MUOS-1
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.

Progress M-14M docks successfully to International space station

The Progress craft that left Baikonur Cosmodrome on Wednesday has successfully docked with the International Space Station.

Docking occurred at 00:09 GMT/UTC on Saturday 28th January (19:06 EST Friday 27th January) approximately 250 statue miles above the Earth over the north east coast of Brazil.

"Soft Dock" of Progress to ISS
"Soft Dock" of Progress to ISS
Current ISS Configuration
Current ISS Configuration with successful Progress "Soft Dock"

The Progress craft conducted a fly-around of the ISS, before docking. After docking a period of “station keeping” was undertaken where all systems are checked to ensure correct operation. During this station keeping phase, the ISS and Progress craft maintain a safe distance between the 2 vehicles of around 200 metres.

Progress craft approaching International Space Station
Progress craft approaching International Space Station
Progress "station keeping"
Progress "station keeping"

Over the next few hours, various leak tests will be conducted to ensure a successful docking, before any personnel are allowed onto the Progress vehicle.

For more information about this resupply mission, about the launch and what the cargo manifest is, see following stories:

Changing of the guard
Latest Progress vessel blasts off to International Space Station

Progress 46 (M-14M) departs from Baikonur Cosmodrome

The latest unmanned Progress cargo ship (M-14M or 46 depending on your chosen designation), has successfully launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on its 2 day journey to the International Space Station (ISS).

The launch, atop a Soyuz-U rocket, was from Site 1/5 at Baikonur, and took place from the same launch pad that launched Yuri Gagarin into space back in 1961.

Final launch preparations started on Tuesday morning, after sunrise, when the Progress craft was taken, as is customary, by rail, lying horizontally on the rail car,from the processing hanger at the Baikonur cosmodrome.

Progress M-14M on rail car prior to launch
Progress M-14M on rail car prior to launch Credit: RIA Novosti

It was then hydraulically lift into a vertical position, and the launch platform was inclined to the proper angle for launch.

Progress 14-M waits on the pad
Progress 14-M waits on the pad Credit: Roscosmos

It was very cold at the launch site with temperatures of around 5 degrees farenheit being recorded.

The launch of the latest Progress vehicle is the culmination of a series of carefully choreographed steps. These started on Tuesday with the undocking, from the PIRS docking module, on the Russian segment of the space station, of the previous Progress resupply ship.

Progress M-13M undocks from the PIRS docking compartment
Progress M-13M undocks from the PIRS docking compartment

After undocking from the ISS, the Progress craft was positioned in a higher orbit to deply the CHIBIS-M micro satellite. (For more details of the CHIBIS-M mission, click HERE. After successfully deploying the micro satellite, Russian controllers fired the engines for the Progress vehicle to burn up in the upper atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean.

The Progress M-14M craft contains almost 2.5 tonnes of supplies for the personnel aboard the ISS. The craft contains:

Main flight components (total weight – 1,259 kg) consisting of:

Item Weight
Fuel in the tanks refueling system 539 kg
Gas in cylinders of oxygen 50 kg
Water 420 kg
Fuel in the tanks of the DCD for use on the ISS 250 kg

Cargo delivered in a sealed compartment (total mass – 1,410 kg) consisting of:

Item Weight
Equipment for life support (GM) 6 kg
Equipment for water supply (WAS) 107 kg
Equipment to ensure the thermal regime (Comp) 40 kg
Command and control equipment “Regulus-OS” 36Kg
TV (TVS) 8 kg
Traffic control and navigation (ship), telephone and telegraph communications (STTS), control onboard equipment (Suba) 2 kg
Means maintenance and repair (STORA) 3 kg
Funds sanitary services (SSGO) 156 kg
fire protection (DPSS) 6 kg
Lighting 17 kg
Funds intermodule ventilation (SMV) 14 kg
containers with food rations, fresh food 304kg
Medical equipment, clothes, personal hygiene, clean air controls and cleaning station 184kg
Equipment FGB “Zarya” 3 kg
Equipment SB-1 “Pirs” 7 kg
Equipment for MIM-1 “Dawn” 24 kg
Equipment for MIM-2 “Search” 5 kg
Equipment for scientific experiments, “Typology”, “Immune,” “Biodegradation”, “Matryoshka-R”, “Endurance”, “Test” 88 kg
Bortdokumentatsiya, parcels for the crew 37 kg
Set items for the Russian crew members 164kg
Equipment for the U.S. segment, including food, sanitation and hygiene facilities to ensure 199kg

The Progress craft, lifted off, flawlessly at 23:06:40 GMT/UTC on Wednesday.

Progress M-14M launches from Baikonur
Progress M-14M launches from Baikonur

Maximum dynamic pressure (or MAX-Q) occurred around 65 seconds into the flight. This is the point at where the pressures on the space ship, from the speed traveled and the density of the atmosphere is at its greatest.

The 4 strap on boosters and first stage were separated as the craft attained 3,500 miles an hour, 2 minutes and 6 seconds after lift off. The first stage is 68 feet in length and 24 feet in diameter and burns liquid fuel.

Most of the recent issues with the Soyuz launchers have revolved around problems with the third stage of the rocket. I imagine therefore, that during this phase, Russian flight engineers were holding their breath. They needn’t have worried, as the stage burned perfectly and confirmation that a successful preliminary orbit had been reached was relayed just over 10 minutes after launch.

Once Progress attained its preliminary orbit, the solar arrays and navigational attenna were successfully deployed. At this point, flight control was passed to the Russian mission control headquaters in Korolov near Moscow.

Russian mission control in Korolev
Russian mission control in Korolev, near Moscow

The Progress now begins a 2 day catch-up to the ISS. 2 rendezvous burns are planned for Tuesday, 1 for Thursday before the final automated rendezvous process starts on Friday.

The Progress vehicle is due to dock at the PIRS module of the ISS at 00:08 GMT/UTC on Saturday morning (04:08 Moscow Time. 19:08 EST on Friday)

At the time of launch, the ISS was orbiting 240 statue miles above the central African country of Chad, moving in a South West to North Easterly direction. The 6 astronauts (a full complement) were asleep during the launch.

After the Progress M-14M craft docks to the ISS, it will remain their until April 24th, when it will make way for the next Progress vehicle.

There are 3 unmanned resupply ships that ferry supplies the ISS. Progress, the Russian craft makes 4 visits a year. ESA provide the Automated Transfer Vehicle, the 3rd of which is due to launch from Kourou on March 9th.

The third resupply vehicle is provided by the Japanese space Agency. It is called the H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV) and the third one is due to dock with the ISS later in 2012.

A Tribute to fallen heroes

Today, 26th January 2012, marks the day when NASA pays tribute to its fallen heroes. Men and woman who’ve paid the ultimate sacrifice, their lives, so that the human race can move forward in space.

MAY THEY ALL REST IN PEACE

APOLLO 1 January 27th 1967

Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom
Edward H. White II
Roger B. Chaffee

Space Shuttle Challenger January 28th 1986

Greg Jarvis
Christa McAuliffe
Ronald McNair
Ellison Onizuka
Judith Resnik
Michael J. Smith
Dick Scobee

Space Shuttle Columbia – February 1st 2003

Rick D. Husband
William C. McCool
Michael P. Anderson
Ilan Ramon
Kalpana Chawla
David M. Brown
Laurel Clark

NASA Memorial - Rest in Peace
On a recent trip to the Kennedy Space Centre I took a picture of the plinth showing the names of the fallen. A very moving and sombre place.
Lightbox version

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

USA

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

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

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.

EUROPE

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

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.

INDIA

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.”