A changing of the guard

The latest Russian resupply craft to supply the International Space Station (ISS) was undocked successfully from the PIRS docking module at 22:10 UTC on Monday 23rd January 2012.

The Progress M-13M craft was launched from the Bakinour Cosmodrome at 10:11 UTC on 30th October, and docked at the ISS on 2nd November. Carrying almost 3 tonnes of supplies, it was the first successful Soyuz flight since the failure, on August 24th 2011 of the previous resupply vessel.

The undocking of the Progress M-13M craft from the ISS, allows for the next resupply vessel, imaginatively called Progress M-14M, to be launched from Bakinour in Kazakhstan. This is currently planned to launch at 23:06 UTC (18:06 EST) on 25th January (03:06 Moscow time on the 26th Jan).

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

The actual name, or designation, of the mission is specified differently in the US and Russia. In the United States, the mission is known as Progress 46P. For them, its the 46th Russian resupply mission to the ISS. The Russians, on the other hand, designate the mission Progress M-14M, as its the 14th flight of this model of the Soyuz rocket. This model, has been modified to include a fully digital flight control system, and first flew in November 2008.

This time the resupply vehicle will supply around 2.5 tonnes of supplies to the ISS. It consists of:

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

After its scheduled launch tomorrow, the resupply vessel will gradually catch up to the ISS for an eventual docking at 00:08 UTC/GMT on Saturday 28th January (06:08 Moscow Time Saturday, 19:08 EST on Friday)

Prior to Progress M-13M’s fiery demise above the Pacific Ocean, Russian ground controllers will briefly send it to a higher orbit by switching on its propulsion engines on Tuesday, at 13:35 UTC/GMT (17:35 Moscow time, 08:35 EST ) & 14:22 GMT (18:22 Moscow time, 09:22 EST).

After two orbit corrections, the Progress craft will be in an orbit around 500 km to deploy the Chibis-M micro-satellite. The mission is an small international collaboration project between Russia, Hungary and Ukraine.

Chibis-M is due to separate from the Progress craft at 23:19 GMT/UTC on Tuesday 24th January (03:19 Moscow time on Wednesday, 18:19 EST Tuesday) and will remain in orbit for at least four years studying lightnings and thunderstorms in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Chibis-M weights about 40 kg and carries about 12 kg of equipment to study high-altitude powerful pulses of gamma rays, X-rays and plasma discharges that sometimes accompany thunderstorms. The craft will hopefully help explain Terrestrial Gamma Ray Flashes (TGFs). TGFs, first discovered in 1994, are probably caused by electric fields produced above thunderstorms, but scientists are still uncertain as to the exact nature of the phenomenon. For more information about the Chibis-M micro-satellite click HERE

Chibis-M  micro satellite
Chibis-M micro satellite Credit: AMSAT-UK

After deploying the Chibis-M satellite, Russian ground controllers will fire the engines on the Progress craft one more time, before it meets a fiery death in the upper atmosphere somewhere above an uninhabited area of the Pacific Ocean at around 03:18 GMT on Wednesday (07:18 Moscow Time, 22:18 EST on Tuesday)

More Astronomy without a Telescope

Some more recent photographs I’ve taken without a telescope.

Jupiter and 4 galilean moons

Taken with my Nikon D90 with a 300mm lens. Click on the image for a larger version.

Jupiter and 4 galilean moons
Jupiter and 4 galilean moons

International Space Station (ISS)

The ISS orbits the Earth every 90 minutes and can sometimes be seen passing overhead. It looks like a quick, silent plane passing from West to East in anything from a minute to 6 minutes, depending on its elevation in the sky. These pictures are of one of the longer passes that occurred just after Christmas 2011.

Each of these images is a 30 second exposure taken at F4.

ISS pass 28th December 2011
Lightbox version

ISS pass 28th December 2011
Lightbox version

The next image LOOKS, like a meteor starting at the left, and ending at the right, but it’s the International Space Station as it moves into the Earth’s shadow. Therefore the picture starts at the right and ends at the left. moving the opposite direction and fading in the Earth shadow. This picture was placed on the front page of flickr as one of the most interesting pictures taken that day. So I was quite happy about that one.
Iss Pass as the sun set
Lightbox Version

For previous articles on taking Astronomical photographs WITHOUT a telescope, see Previous articles of astro images without a telescope

Let me know if you’d like an articles of the camera settings required to take images of Jupiter, The Milky Way, ISS without a telescope.

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.”

Phobos Grunt to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere in around 10 days

*** UPDATE 25th January 2011 18:05 GMT/UTC ***

US strategic Command has released what it considers to be the best estimate of where the Russian probe Phobos-Grunt crashed to Earth, or burnt up in the upper atmosphere. They estimate, based on telemetry radar imaging and orbital data a reentry time of 17:46 GMT/UTC on 15th January 2012. The craft is said to have burnt up at an altitude of 80 km at 46°S and 87°W, near the South American coastline. (see image below)

US Strategic Command prediction where Phobos Grunt burnt up
US Strategic Command prediction where Phobos Grunt burnt up

The effort, undertaken by US Strategic command, was part of a comprehensive reentry prediction campaign for Phobos–Grunt conducted by the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC), a technical forum for the worldwide coordination of activities related to human-made and natural debris in space.

IADC is an inter agency forum for the worldwide coordination of activities related to issues of human-made & natural debris in space. Members agencies include ESA, NASA, European national agencies and the Russian, Chinese, Canadian, Japanese, Ukrainian and Indian space agencies.

*** UPDATE 15th January 2011 18:05 GMT/UTC ***

Russia Today, a Russian based news organisation has reported that Phobos Grunt has crash landed into the Pacific Ocean. According to reports, the debris fell in 1250 kilometers to the west of the island of Wellington.
More details at: Russia Today announces CRASH of Phobos Grunt probe

*** UPDATE 14th January 2011 17:45 GMT/UTC ***

Roscosmos NOW suggests that Phobos Grunt COULD re-enter the atmosphere around the Falklands Islands, but still tomorrow, on the 15th January. Due to the orbital journey of the probe, anywhere between the southern part of England and Wales, to the lower tip of South America COULD be the re-entry point.

The re-entry will be one of the largest probes that has EVER plunged back into the Earth’s atmosphere. Due to the fact that it never ventured to Mars all the fuel designed for the mission has NOT been used.

When Phobos Grunt re-enters the atmosphere, it will be a 13 1/2 tonnes probe consisting of solar panels, probe machinery (including a small probe DESIGNED to survive re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere) and toxic cryogenic fuel (making up around 10 1/2 tonnes of the overall weight). This fuel is housed in an aluminum tank aboard the probe.

Phobos Grunt Probe
Phobos Grunt Probe Credit: Roscosmos

The fact that it’s an aluminium tank is good, as this means that when the probe re-enters the atmosphere, the aluminium,as its a fast conductor of heat, should ensure near uniform warming of the toxic fuel. This SHOULD ensure it unfreezes and IGNITES sooner, which means it will ignite HIGHER in the upper atmosphere, causing LESS potential damage.

*** UPDATE 12th January 2011 22:00 GMT/UTC ***

The Russian news agency, Interfax, is reporting that Roscosmos has now suggested the craft might fall into the Indian Ocean between the eastern African coast and the island of Madagascar approximately at 47 degrees eastern longitude and 7 degrees southern latitude.

“The change of place and time of the fall of the Phobos-Grunt debris is due to the decrease in its orbit altitude, solar activity and the atmospheric condition,” the latest statement said.

We can expect more announcements of this nature with various locations being suggested as we get closer to the point where the probe actually does re-enter. As the orbit of Phobos Grunt covers virtually anywhere from the southern part of England to the Southern tip of South America (51 degrees above and below the equator) anywhere in between could be a possbile entry zone. The hope is that as 70% of the Earth is covered in water, any segments that survive re-entry will either land here, or in an uninhabited area.

World Map. Shaded are is where Phobos Grunt could re-enter atmosphere
Map shaded area shows where Phobos Grunt could re-enter atmosphere

All we can safely say is this: A Russian spacecraft weighing over 13 1/2 tonnes (of mostly toxic fuel) WILL re-enter the atmosphere VERY soon.

To find out more of the details of the Phobos Grunt mission, including why the rocket carries 10.5 tonnes of toxic fuel and what effect this could have on the Earth, click HERE

*** UPDATE 11th January 2011 19:45 GMT/UTC***

Roscosmos has issued a statement, today reinforcing their estimate of the 15th January for the probe’s re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, and have for the first said the the probable fallout area will be the Indian Ocean area, southwest of Jakarta, the Indonesian capital.

Also in a separate statement, which many are interpreting as a dig at America, Russian officials are suggesting “external forces” may be responsible for recent Russians launch mishaps, and that perhaps Phobos Grunt may have failed because it was struck by some type of antisatellite weapon. While providing no evidence to back up his claims, Vladimir Popovkin the director of the Russian space agency is reported to have said that:

“the frequent failure of our space launches, which occur at a time when they are flying over the part of Earth not visible from Russia, where we do not see the spacecraft and do not receive telemetric information, are not clear to us,”

With recent funding, personnel and security issues that have beset the Russian space Industry recently, these, in my view, are a far more logical explanation to the current woes of the Russian Space Program that any suggestion of any “external forces”.

*** Original story ***

The Russian probe, Phobos-Grunt is expected to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere on January 15th, (+/- 2 days) according to the latest information provided by Russian Air & Space Defence Troops’ spokesman Alexei Zolotukhin. No actual impact point was given.

He also acknowledged that this date could change depending on certain other factors. These can include:

  • The thickness of the atmosphere
  • Solar activity
  • The orientation and spin of the probe

Over Christmas, the Americans announced that they thought Phobos-Grunt would re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere on January 14th, and land in the Helmand region of Afghanistan. Based on the factors above, the fact that the Americans named a date well in advance and a very specific location, these claims were met with skepticism.

Whenever the probes does re-enter, due to the population distribution on the planet and the fact that 70% of the planet is covered in water, it is highly likely the probe with either land in a remote area or in the sea.

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

The Phobos grunt probe was the first attempt by Russia to launch an interplanetary probe for nearly 15 years. It was mainly designed to fly to the Martian Moon, Phobos, extract a soil sample (the Russian word for soil is Grunt) and then return this sample to Earth. If successful, it would have been a VERY exciting mission.

It was launched from Site 45 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, on November 9th 2011, at 00:16 Moscow Time (20:16 GMT, 15:16 EST, on November 8th), on board a Russian Zenit-2SB41.1 rocket.

While the rocket placed the probe into a successful initial orbit, the engines on the probe designed to fire the craft to its journey towards the Martian Moon failed to fire, and the probe has been drifting helplessly in orbit ever since. Extensive attempts by Russian, European and American ground stations have not been able to make any meaningful contact with the probe.

To find out more of the details of the Phobos Grunt mission, including why the rocket carries 10.5 tonnes of toxic fuel and what effect this could have on the Earth, click HERE

GRAIL probes successfully enter Lunar orbit

NASA’s Jet propulsion Laboratory has confirmed that after 2 separate burn operations, conducted 24 hours apart, that both GRAIL probes; GRAIL A and GRAIL B, have successfully been placed into their initial Lunar orbits.

The process started yesterday (31st December 2011), with the burn of the engines on the GRAIL A probe. This started 13:21 PST (16:21 EST, 21:21 GMT/UTC). Engine shutdown occurred after a 40 minute burn, and JPL soon confirmed successful insertion of GRAIL A into Lunar orbit. The initial orbit is 56 miles by 5,197 miles (90 kilometers by 8,363 kilometers) around the moon and takes approximately 11.5 hours to complete

GRAIL A as it approaches Lunar Orbit
GRAIL A as it approaches Lunar Orbit

Successful insertion of GRAIL A into Lunar orbit has been confirmed.

Celebrations after confirmation of GRAIL A in Lunar orbit
Celebrations after confirmation of GRAIL A in Lunar orbit

After a scheduled delay of almost 24 hours, GRAIL B burn started its burn precisely on time at 14:05 PST (17:05 EST / 22:05 GMT/UTC) on January 1st 2012 to place the spacecraft into an elliptical 11.5 hour orbit. This burn was scheduled to last around 39 minutes. The closest approach to the Moon was approximately 85 miles above its surface.

Grail B Burns as it enters Lunar Orbit
Grail B Burns as it enters Lunar Orbit

Over the next few weeks, the GRAIL team will perform a number of burns on both spacecraft, to gradually reduce this orbit from 11.5 hours to just under two. At the end of these maneuvers, and when the Science phase of the project begins (scheduled for early March), the spacecraft will be orbiting at an altitude of only 34 miles (55 kilometers) above the surface of the Moon. This science phase is due to last 82 days, at which point both craft will be deliberately crashed into the Moon’s surface.

For previous stories relating to this story, see:

1st GRAIL probe set to enter Moons orbit

GRAIL Launch

1st GRAIL probe set to enter Moon’s orbit

NASA’s twin spacecraft to study the moon from crust to core are nearing their New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day main-engine burns to place the duo in lunar orbit.

Named Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory (GRAIL), the 2 spacecraft are scheduled to be placed in orbit over the next 36 hours. The first one (GRAIL-A) will enter orbit starting at 1:21 p.m. PST (16:21 EST, 21:21 GMT/UTC) today (December 31st 2011), while the 2nd probe (GRAIL-B) enters the Moon’s orbit at 14:05 PST (17:05 EST / 22:05 GMT/UTC) tomorrow (January 1st 2012).

Our team may not get to partake in a traditional New Year’s celebration, but I expect seeing our two spacecraft safely in lunar orbit should give us all the excitement and feeling of euphoria anyone in this line of work would ever need,” said David Lehman, project manager for GRAIL at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.

Delta II rocket showing GRAIL

The distance from Earth to the moon is approximately 250,000 miles (402,300 kilometers). While NASA’s Apollo astronauts made the journey to the Moon in around 3 days, the GRAIL spacecraft have taken about 30 times longer. They were launched atop a Delta 2 rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in September 10th 2011,and have covered more than 2.5 million miles (4 million kilometers) to get there.

Grail trajectory to the Moon

This low-energy, long-duration trajectory has given mission planners and controllers more time to assess the spacecraft’s health. The path (see image above) also allowed a vital component of the spacecraft’s single science instrument, the Ultra Stable Oscillator, to be continuously powered for several months. This will allow it to reach a stable operating temperature long before it begins making science measurements in lunar orbit.


Close up of Delta II Carrying grail

This mission will rewrite the textbooks on the evolution of the moon,” said Maria Zuber, GRAIL principal investigator from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. “Our two spacecraft are operating so well during their journey that we have performed a full test of our science instrument and confirmed the performance required to meet our science objectives.

As of December 28th 2011, GRAIL-A is 65,860 miles (106,000 kilometers) from the moon and closing at a speed of 745 mph (1,200 kph). GRAIL-B is 79,540 miles (128,000 kilometers) from the moon and closing at a speed of 763 mph (1,228 kph).

After orbital insertion both probes will orbit the Moon every 11.5 hours. Over the following weeks, the GRAIL team will perform a number of burns on both spacecraft, to gradually reduce this orbit to just under two hours. At this point, and when the Science phase of the project begins, the spacecraft will be orbiting at an altitude of around 34 miles (55 kilometers) above the surface of the Moon. This science phase is due to last 82 days, at which point both craft will be deliberately crashed into the Moon’s surface.

For more information, relating to the GRAIL mission, click HERE

*** UPDATE 31st December 2011 21:49 GMT/UTC ***

Burn of GRAIL A seems to be going well. Probe engines have fired successfully and hopefully the probe will be in Lunar orbit soon. For Live updates, of the orbital insertion, visit NASA Solar System Eyes

Engine shutdown occurred a few moments ago. All seems well. Awaiting confirmation of successful insertion into Lunar orbit.

GRAIL A as it approaches Lunar Orbit
GRAIL A as it approaches Lunar Orbit

Successful insertion of GRAIL A into Lunar orbit has been confirmed.

Celebrations after confirmation of GRAIL A in Lunar orbit
Celebrations after confirmation of GRAIL A in Lunar orbit

GRAIL B will now start the same process tomorrow, starting at 14:05 PST (17:05 EST / 22:05 GMT/UTC). GRAIL B is currently just over 307,000 miles from the Moon.

*** UPDATE 1st January 22:12 GMT/UTC ***

GRAIL B burn has started to place the spacecraft into an elliptical orbit of around 11.5 hours.

Grail B Burns as it enters Lunar Orbit
Grail B Burns as it enters Lunar Orbit

Proton ILS rocket launch postponed as fault found in Breeze-M upper stage

A proton rocket launch carrying a SES communications satellite was cancelled today after engineers testing the rocket spotted an anomaly in the Breeze M upper stage.

The upper stage will now be replaced. This will involve removing the rocket from the launch pad, and replacing the defective component(s). This will involve a delay of at least 25 days…

Poised to be the largest satellite in the SES fleet, and replacing an existing NSS-7 satellite, the SES-4 will enhance what is already the largest neighborhood in the Atlantic. SES-4 will be a hybrid satellite featuring high powered C-band coverage and incremental global capacity which is ideal for video distribution, government and VSAT services. The satellite’s Ku-band payload will provide enhanced coverage and capacity across Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Western Africa and Latin America.

SES-4 is the largest satellite ordered by SES to date, weighing 6,180 kg. Satellite Mission Lifetime is designed to be 15 Years.

No new launch date has been provided by the ILS (international Launch Services) launch team.

*** UPDATE 28th December 2011 ***

ILS (international Launch Services) have just announced that the SES-4 communication satellite will be launched on the 21st January 2012 from the Baiknour Cosmodrome.
more to follow

Search continues for failed Soyuz and Meridan satellite

Officials are still searching for parts of the failed Meridian 5 military communication satellite and parts of the Soyuz rocket that failed correctly to launch on Friday 23rd December.

Launch & impact area of Soyuz
Launch & impact area of Soyuz

The third stage of the Soyuz rocket, a stage that has become notoriously unreliable over recent months, is the section believed to have caused the launch failure from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Northern Russia. All was going well with the flight, until around 7 minutes into the flight.

The searches are being concentrated in the Novosibirsk region of Siberia, near the areas of Azimuth, Chernakova, Vagaytsevo, Ust-Orda which stretches for more than 100 square miles. Residents have been informed they should also examine their own gardens. This is after a report of a segment of the failed rocket impacting a house owned by Andrei Krivoruchenko. He said that he heard a huge noise and a crash as the satellite hit the roof, while he was in the house with his wife.

“I climbed up onto the roof and could not work out what had happened. Then I saw a huge hole in the roof and the metal object,” he told Russian state television.

Town authorities have informed Mr. Krivoruchenko that if the claims are verified, the State will pay for the repair to his property.

This failure has culminated in the head of the Russian space Agency Vladimir Popovkin stating that the Russian Space industry is in “CRISIS” and that things are looking very serious. For more news on what prompted those comments, click HERE

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.

Russian launch woes continue with loss of another Soyuz-2.1B rocket

A Soyuz-2.1B rocket carrying a classified Russian communications satellite, Meridian-5 satellite was launched from Plesetsk spaceport in the Arkhangelsk region, but crashed into the Siberian wilderness minutes later.

Soyuz TMA-03M
A Soyuz TMA-03M similar to rocket that launched Meridan-5

The rocket launched, on time, at 13:08 GMT/UTC. All seemed to progress well with the flight, but within 7 minutes, flight engineers reported the reported that problems had occurred. This points to a problem with the third stage engine of the Soyuz-2.1B rocket. The payload, and what remained of the Soyuz rocket, crashed in Siberia.

At an ISS news conference, to confirm the successfully docking of the Soyuz TMA-03M to the ISS (International Space Station), questions regarding the destruction of the Meridan sateliite and the failure of the Souyz rocket dominated.

Vladimir Popovkin
Vladimir Popovkin,head of the Russian Space Agency

When asked about the failure of the military communication failure, the Russian Space Agency chief, Vladimir Popovkin, clearly suggested the third stage engine had failed again, but said that telemetry was being gathered as well as debris of the Meridian satellite that was found in the Ordynsky district of Novosibirsk territory.

Crash site of Meridan-5 and Soyuz
Crash site of Meridan-5 and Soyuz (A = Launch site), (B = suggested crash site)

No final decision would be given for the failure before tomorrow he reported.

He also said that and that was a signifcant failure and suggested that this area of the Russian space industry was in crisis. He mentioned that the third stage engine had been manufactured in 2009.

When pressed again, he thought the problem may involve a “route and branch” upgrade of the Russian space faciilties. He hightlighed three main issues:

  • Modernising of equipment and processes
  • Optimisation of tracking system
  • Dealing with an aging workforce

While the average age of people in russian space industry is 43, this hides a huge demographic issue. While many experienced personnel left in the 90’s, there are still many engineers aged 60+. The people who left were not replaced, and it is only now that these positions are being refilled. Therefore, while a number of engineers are older and have more experience, the younger personnel lack experience, and Popovkin feels this may be hampering the Russian space effort.

This is another in a series of Russian launch failures in 2011. This is at least the third failure of the Soyuz rocket, since the failure of the Progress resupply vehicle in August.