June 10, 2013
Update: June 26, 2013
The crew of Shenzhou-10 – Nie Haisheng, Zhang Xioguang and Wang Yaping — are now back on the ground, having completed their 15-day mission to the Tiangong-1 space station. Here’s video of the crew emerging from their capsule at the landing site in Inner Mongolia:
Update: June 25, 2013:
The Shenzhou-10 capsule has undocked from Tiangong-1, and the astronauts are getting ready to return to Earth. Landing is scheduled for 8 a.m. Wednesday morning, Chinese time — or 8 p.m. Tuesday, U.S. eastern time.
Update: June 24, 2013
Another spaceflight ritual checked off the list: the presidential phone call. China’s President Xi Jinping talked to the orbiting Shenzhou astronauts by phone from mission control earlier today:
The astronauts did a manual un-docking and re-docking with the Tiangong-1 station yesterday, and are expected to return to Earth early Wednesday.
Update: June 20, 2013
Shenzhou astronauts broadcast China’s first “lesson from space” on Thursday morning, with Wang Yaping as the teacher, commander Nie Haisheng as her assistant, and Zhang Xioguang as the cameraman. Here’s the whole 45-minute lesson (with English translation helpfully provided). It was watched by more than 60 million school children in China. The continuous broadcast was relayed through the Tianlian communication satellites — China’s equivalent to the TDRSS satellites that greatly improved NASA’s communication with orbiting astronauts back in the space shuttle days.
It’s fascinating to watch China recreate half a century of human spaceflight evolution in just a few years. Wang’s demonstrations covered all the marvels that astronaut teachers have been wowing students with since the beginning of the space age: floating balls of water, spinning gyroscopes, stars that don’t twinkle, and 16 sunrises a day. As Zhang told the students at the end of the lesson, “deep space is a place full of secrets.”
Here’s a vintage video from 40 years ago — astronaut Owen Garriott teaching much the same kinds of lessons from NASA’s first space station, Skylab:
Update: June 19, 2013
Wang Yaping is scheduled to teach her lesson from space — a first for the Chinese — around 10 a.m. on Thursday, according to Chinese media. (That’s 10 p.m. Wednesday in the Eastern U.S. time zone). China Central TV has a live feed here.
Update: June 17, 2013
As promised, the Tiangong-1 module has new flooring. The Shenzhou-10 astronauts did a little Home Depot installation job on Friday.
Chinese media also passed on a message that American teacher-in-space Barbara Morgan sent to Wang Yaping, who plans to deliver a science lecture from orbit during her mission. Calling Wang “China’s first teacher in space” seems a bit of a stretch, since she’s not a professional teacher, and practically all astronauts, from all nations, interact with school children during their missions. But this apparently will be more of a formal physics lesson, as opposed to just a fun demonstration. Let’s hope, as Morgan wrote, that “these are all going to be broadcast on the Internet, so that all of those on the ground in the world can watch.”
Update: June 14, 2013
Chinese TV coverage of the Shenzhou-10 mission seems a little stingier than on past missions, or maybe the astronauts are busier. Still, this segment (in Chinese) shows a few scenes right after the crew boarded the Tiangong-1 module yesterday.
The module still appears to have its flexible, trampoline-like floor. During the pre-launch press conference, Chinese space agency spokesperson Wu Ping mentioned that the floor would be changed, so maybe we’ll see a more solid one by mission’s end.
Update: June 13, 2013
Shenzhou-10 docked with the Tiangong-1 mini-space station (what else to call something smaller than the Spacehab module that used to ride in the U.S. space shuttle’s cargo bay?) at 1:18 p.m. Thursday afternoon, Chinese time. For the next 12 days you’ll be able to follow their combined orbital track to see when the docked vehicles are flying overhead.
Here’s a shot of the crew inside Tiangong-1. More photos are here, from the Xinhua news agency.
Update: June 12, 2013
The Shenzhou-10 astronauts are on their way to the Tiangong-1 space station. If the orbit-matching and rendezvous follow the same timetable as last year’s Shenzhou-9 mission, we can expect the docking to take place early Thursday afternoon, Beijing time (U.S. Eastern time is 12 hours behind, so it would be late Wednesday night/early Thursday morning here).
CCTV has broadcast a few scenes (in Chinese) of the weightless crew inside their Shenzhou spacecraft:
Update: June 11, 2013
The walkout to the launch pad has been a ritual for astronauts and cosmonauts for more than 50 years, and each of the three spacefaring nations — the U.S., Russia, and China — does it a little differently. “Walkout” is a bit of a misnomer, actually. The crews ride in a bus to the pad, and their sendoff before boarding the bus is just the last in a series of goodbyes from well-wishers, family, and even the viewing public. American astronauts are probably the most casual. After suiting up, space shuttle crews would quickly board their Astrovan, waving to a crowd of friends, co-workers and news photographers, sometimes without even breaking their stride. Russians like to pile on the ritual, with seemingly endless signing ceremonies, tree-plantings, and other customs added over the years, in both Star City (where cosmonauts say a tearful goodbye to their families) and the launch center at Baikonur.
Here’s how the Chinese do it. The Shenzhou-10 crew sendoff earlier today was a mix of protocol and pageantry, with a slightly more military vibe than you’d see at an American or Russian launch.
June 10, 2013
A crew of three Chinese astronauts is making final preparations for a 15-day mission to the nation’s Tiangong-1 space station. Their launch, on a Long March 2F Y10 rocket, is scheduled for 5:38 p.m. Chinese time (5:38 a.m. U.S. Eastern time) on Tuesday.
The Shenzhou-10 mission will be very similar to the Shenzhou-9 flight a year ago, with a couple of minor adjustments (for example, this time the astronauts won’t work round-the-clock in shifts). Once again the crew consists of two men and one woman. Commander Nie Haisheng was the flight engineer on Shenzhou-6 in 2005, and Zhang Xioguang and Wang Yaping are both rookies.
Here’s the crew’s press conference, from earlier today:
Here’s a profile of Wang, the country’s second female astronaut:
And here’s American planetary scientist John Lewis offering perspective on China’s human space exploration program in an interview for Chinese TV.
June 4, 2013
As the saying goes, it’s tough to turn a big ship. That’s why an experiment last winter that required shifting the International Space Station’s attitude became an important lesson in what it takes to move a million-pound structure in space. According to European Space Agency operations engineers Nadia This and Denis Van Hoof, an undertaking like this requires patience and preparation — not to mention a few gutsy scientists.
The move was to accommodate an ESA experiment called SOLAR, a nickname for the “Sun Monitoring on the External Payload Facility of Columbus” project, which measures sun activity and radiation. Mounted to the outside of the station, SOLAR normally can rotate to keep the sun in view for 14 days in a row — called a Sun Visibility Window. But eventually the station’s orientation changes so that it blocks the sun, sometimes for up to 25 days.
During a meeting of the SOLAR team in 2010, one of the heliophysicists mentioned it was a pity the instrument couldn’t see a full 27-day rotation of the sun, especially now that it’s in the active phase of its 11-year cycle. Couldn’t they move the space station to point the instrument at it for that long?
At least they could ask.
“For scientific investigators, the sky is the limit,” says Van Hoof. “They will propose whatever crazy idea they might have. Of course there is a filter in between. Two years ago, I talked with my team leader about this, and he said ‘let’s make a technical [description of the procedure], but I’m pretty sure this is not going to get through.’ ”
Fortunately, celestial timing favors SOLAR twice a year. Around the summer and winter solstices, when the sun reaches its highest or lowest point relative to the celestial equator, the blackout period shortens to just eight days. So if the team could move the station for just those days, they could combine two observation windows back-to-back, and see a full rotation of the sun.
Adjustments to the ISS orbit are carefully planned and executed in collaboration with the five international partners and their scientific communities. Because many sensitive instruments are mounted outside and inside, changing the station’s orientation might mean exposing them to different radiation, temperature fluctuations, drag and other hazards, not to mention changing their own planned targeting. The station can fly in three flight attitudes, but some instruments are only rated to fly a limited number of hours in certain configurations.
Station managers also needed to consider everything from the position of the station’s robotic arm to the amount of momentum stored in the station’s control gyros (read more about ISS steering here)
After two years of planning and negotiations, the move was approved. “I don’t know if we got lucky or if it’s politics now, but the ISS program is really wanting to show that they are there for science,” Van Hoof says.
Last fall, with all the parameters set and the SOLAR experiment ready, the station prepared to move. On November 19, SOLAR came out of shadow and began recording the sun. On December 1, the station spent about two hours shifting seven degrees, holding the angle for 10 days before returning to its regular position. The team was able to gather 35 straight days of observations.
The science team is still analyzing their data, but they noticed changes in the sun’s activity in extreme ultraviolet wavelengths, related to newly forming sunspots, Van Hoof says. A full rotation provides a much more complete data set that the team can use to compare with other solar-observing experiments, such as NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. The team was so pleased with the results that they hope to perform the maneuver again during the summer solstice later this month.
May 13, 2013
Somebody had to do it.
Commander Chris Hadfield returns to Earth this evening, along with Expedition 34/35 crewmates Dr. (not Major) Tom Marshburn and Roman Romanenko. NASA TV coverage of their departure from the International Space Station begins at 3:30.
May 9, 2013
“We need to do something to get started.”
There was a subtext of desperation in Dennis Tito‘s plea at this week’s Humans to Mars conference in Washington, considering he’d just spent the last few minutes dashing all hope that the U.S. government will send people to Mars any time soon.
But Tito doesn’t seem desperate. In fact, it’s amazing how cool and collected he and his fellow space pioneers sounded as they described two wildly ambitious, privately funded Mars missions: a 500-day round-trip for two (Tito’s Inspiration Mars), and an even more daring one-way trip to the surface for four pioneers (Mars One).
The backers admit that yes, they have their work cut out for them. They talk like sober space engineers, with data, viewgraphs, and a list of technical advisors. It’ll be tough, they say, but doable. And we’re meant to find that inspiring.
Well, you may say I’m not a dreamer — and I’m not the only one.
Consider Tito’s plan. They’ll need to launch in 2018 to hit the launch window for their particular mission design (a swingby with no landing). Elon Musk of SpaceX, maybe the most audacious engineer of our time, took 10 years to design, build and launch unmanned cargo ships to low Earth orbit. Judging from his experience alone, I’d say there’s almost no chance Inspiration Mars will be ready in just five years.
Mars One aims to launch in 2022, but will need to start sending technology demo missions in 2016, just three years from now. Again, I have to think it’s very, very unlikely.
Still, there’s something poignant about this business of passing the hat for space settlement. In the first two weeks of accepting applications (the registration fee varies according to country; Afghans pay just $5, while Qataris pay $73) the organization got 78,000 applicants. Some of the applicants’ videos can be seen here.
Mars One isn’t the first company to believe they can finance a multibillion dollar space mission by selling media rights. Others thought they could do the same with trips to the International Space Station and robots on the moon. None of it has come to pass.
The current enthusiasm for crowdsourcing space, from Astronaut Abby to Uwingu, seems driven partly by the early success of commercial ventures like SpaceX, and partly by the explosive growth of social media. It has more to do with Twitter than Apollo, but in 2013, that’s where we’re at.
April 12, 2013
This week NASA announced plans to capture a small asteroid in 2019 and bring it back to the vicinity of the Moon for later study by astronauts. It’s a good idea, for several reasons.
It’s of real importance to society.
The asteroid threat is sometimes overhyped, and it’s no wonder politicians don’t consider it an emergency when the last Extinction Level Event (to borrow a term from Deep Impact) happened 64 million years ago. Still, the fireball over Chelyabinsk in February demonstrated that even a small space rock can do damage, and hinted at even scarier scenarios. The rock that NASA plans to retrieve would be just half the size of the 60-foot Chelyabinsk object, small enough to burn up harmlessly if it entered our atmosphere. But learning to deflect or move even a mini-asteroid should give us valuable experience.
Public support for asteroid research is a no-brainer, yet NASA has had trouble allocating even a few million dollars a year (in an $18 billion budget) for a comprehensive search using a modest, space-based telescope. This new mission would help get the hunt started, because it requires an inventory of even smaller objects than we’ve tracked in the past.
Meanwhile, NASA still struggles to find a compelling destination for future astronauts that will sell with the general public. Expeditions to Mars or setting up an outpost on the Moon are fascinating projects, but hardly essential, and many taxpayers still consider them frivolous. Understanding asteroids and learning how to alter their course, on the other hand, are critical to humanity’s ultimate survival.
It advances space technology.
A mission that sounds straightforward, and is expected to cost no more than NASA’s latest Mars rover, would nonetheless require several new technologies that could also be applied to other projects. Solar electric engines for the unmanned tug that retrieves the asteroid can be used on future planetary spacecraft. Robotic tools for snagging an “uncooperative” target like a tumbling asteroid might also be used to clean up space debris or refuel satellites in orbit. After the rock is retrieved, astronauts will have to learn to live and work in what’s called cislunar space, something they’ve never done. In short, there’s plenty of cool and useful technology in an asteroid retrieval mission.
It sends astronauts farther than they’ve ever gone.
Does human spaceflight have a future? In 2013, the answer is not obvious. The technologies of robotics and telepresence are advancing far faster than rockets and space capsules, which are still spinning off ideas developed in the 1950s. Those who doubt that humans will ever be content to explore deep space virtually, as opposed to going there in person, should consider Skype and Oculus Rift. Behaviors deeply embedded in human culture are changing before our eyes. Military forces are rapidly evolving from a centuries-old model of flesh-and-blood warriors facing off on battlefields to drones fighting drones. Why should space exploration be any different?
This may not, in fact, be the last hurrah for old-school (human) astronauts. But choosing a just-over-the-horizon destination like the lunar far side, while reviving some of the old Apollo mojo, will help us decide whether to continue sending people farther out into the solar system.
It encourages cooperation.
Groups including the B612 Foundation already are working to characterize the threat of larger incoming asteroids (“city killers” upwards of 100 feet in size), while others have announced plans to mine smaller rocks. NASA might be able to leverage these private ventures to keep its own costs down and encourage more players in the space business.
Within the agency itself, an asteroid retrieval mission would demand closer collaboration between the astronaut program and the science side of the house than at any time since Apollo. Meanwhile, partners in the International Space Station, who’ve shown only polite interest in the Moon or Mars, might be more willing to join in a smaller-scale mission with obvious benefit to all nations.
Maybe the biggest advantage of all.
Every so often, a U.S. President (Bushes 41 and 43 most recently) proposes a grandiose go-to-the-Moon or –Mars scheme, which quickly peters out when everyone realizes, once again, that it costs way too much. Space advocates with long memories might be forgiven if they no longer expect Charlie Brown to kick the football.
Today the economic situation is worse than at any time in the space age. With millions unemployed and uninsured, and with public and private debt skyrocketing, no politician is about to suggest an expensive mission to the moon or Mars. Sorry, that’s not strictly true. Those representing districts with NASA centers will. But don’t expect many others to join them.
That leaves NASA building a new rocket (the Space Launch System) and new vehicle (Orion), with no obvious place to go. Space agency managers rightly asked themselves what they could realistically do with the tools and money on hand, in a relatively short time. And the asteroid retrieval mission is what they came up with.
Some will say that grabbing a space rock – a tiny one at that – is not ambitious enough, not worthy of the nation that launched Apollo. “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp,” so this argument goes. Maybe. But while Robert Browning’s advice may be good for an artist, it can lead to frustration and failure for engineers and accountants.
So here’s a more pertinent line from the same poem: “Less is more.”
Let’s do something we can actually accomplish. And let’s get on with it.
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