It’s been 17 years since the first part of the International Space Station was launched into orbit and since then it’s become a symbol of humanity’s ability and desire to go further in space. The fact that NASA and Roscosmos have remained cooperative throughout all the tumultuous times that their parent countries have endured speaks to the greater goal that they both seek, along with all of the other participating nations. However, just like any other piece of equipment, the ISS will eventually wear out requiring replacement or significant revamping in order to keep going. The current plans are to keep it going through to 2024 however past that date it’s likely that the ISS will meet its firey end, burning up in a controlled re-entry back to Earth.
Russia had made its intent clear when this fateful time arrived: it would detach all its current modules and then form its own space station in orbit to continue operations. Such an exercise, whilst possible, would be non-trivial in nature and by Russia’s own accounts would likely only give those modules another 4 years worth of life before the maintenance costs on the aging hardware outstripped any potential benefits. Thus the pressure has been on to start looking towards designing a replacement orbital space station, one that can support humanity’s activities in space for the next few decades.
Roscosmos recently announced that they had committed to building the ISS’s replacement with NASA with the details to be forthcoming. NASA, whilst praising Russia’s commitment to continuing ISS operations to 2024, didn’t speak to a potential future space station. Whilst they didn’t outright deny that NASA and Russia aren’t or won’t be working on a future space station together they have said in the past that they’d hope that the private space industry would be able to provide such capability soon. That’s looking like it will be happening too, given that Bigelow is hoping to ship their BEAM module to the ISS by the end of this year.
There’s every chance that NASA and Roscosmos have been in talks behind the scenes to work on the next generation space station and Russia simply jumped the gun on announcing the collaboration. It does seem a little odd however as their previous announcement of breaking away from the ISS when the deorbit date came was rather…hostile and most expected NASA and Roscosmos to simply part ways at that point. Doing an about face and announcing a collaboration is great news however it just seems odd that NASA wouldn’t say something similar if they were actually doing it. So either Russia’s just really excited to make an announcement or there’s a larger play happening here, but I can’t imagine NASA being guilted into committing to building another ISS.
I’m hopeful that it’s not a lot of hot air as the ISS has proven to be both a valuable science experiment as well as an inspirational icon to spur the next generation to pursue a career beyond the Earth’s surface. We’ve learnt many lessons from building the now football field sized station in orbit and the next one we build can be that much better because of them. That, combined with the numerous benefits that comes from international collaboration on a project of this scale, means that there’s still an incredible amount of value to derive from something like the ISS and I hope Roscosmos’ ambition is based in reality.
The Outer Space Treaty, which has been signed and ratified by over a hundred countries, declares that space should be a peaceful domain, free of weapons and violence. There are numerous reasons for this however the most critical of these is avoiding the horrendous plague that is Kessler syndrome, the point at which our near earth orbits are so littered with space junk that launching anything becomes next to impossible. At the same time however the lack of an overt weapons capability in space leads to all sorts of whacky theories about military operations in space, fuelled by the lack of public data on classified missions. The latest of which is the mysterious Kosmos-2499 satellite which some are theorizing is Russia’s latest anti-satellite weapon.
Kosmos-2499 attracted the attention of numerous conspiracy theorists due to it’s semi-mysterious launch. Quite often classified payloads are launched alongside regular ones in order to hide their true nature and this was the case with Kosmos-2499, launching with 3 other communications satellites (Kosmos-2496~2498). It was initially tracked as space debris since the official launch manifest only listed 3 payloads, however shortly after Roscosmos confirmed that 4 satellites were launched on that particular rocket. This makes it an interesting, although not particularly unusual, launch but its behaviour following launch is what really got the crazies whipped up.
It changed it’s orbit.
Satellites don’t typically change their orbit very much so when one does it often becomes a target of interest for stargazers. The X-37B is probably the most notable example of a satellite that was able to do this which was also a military craft although it’s orbit meant that, should it have any anti-satellite capabilities, it wouldn’t have the opportunity to use them. Kosmos-2499 is in a similar position however it was in a position to rendezvous with 2 pieces of space debris, namely the remnants of a previous launch vehicle and it’s own booster. This has then led to a flurry of speculation that Kosmos-2499 has satellite-killing capabilities ranging from things like a pellet gun to grappling arms that can detach solar panels. All things considered I think that’s a pretty unlikely scenario and the satellite’s purpose is likely a lot more mundane.
The other satellites launched alongside Kosmos-2499 were pretty small in stature, coming in at about 250kg each. It’s then highly likely that Kosmos-2499 doesn’t exceed this by much and so the capabilities that they can integrate into it a pretty limited. Also when you consider that it’s likely carrying with it a ton of propellant in order to complete these orbital transitions, including the approaches, then you’re even further limited in what kind of payload you can bring along for the ride. Most likely then Kosmos-2499 is a platform for Russia to test close approaches to other objects on orbit (I’d hazard a guess in an automated fashion) with a view to integrate such technology into future projects.
Whilst I sometimes enjoy letting the conspiracy nut part of my brain run amok on these things the truth of the matter is usually far more mundane than we’d think it to be. Doing things in space is awfully difficult and building in radical capabilities like the ones people are talking about really isn’t that feasible, or even sensible. Indeed the best counters to a military presence in space are most often ground based things that can be done far cheaper and with a lot less hassle than trying to create some kind of satellite killing space robot. Kosmos-2499 might be a bit mysterious but I doubt it’s purpose is that exotic.
The Outer Space Treaty dictates that no country will attempt to weaponize space, whether that be through the use of stationing weapons of mass destruction through to using it as an environment to test weapons. To me it’s probably one of the most forward thinking documents to have ever come about with regards to space as it wouldn’t take many in space incidents to make space travel, and by extension any purely scientific endeavours in space, completely infeasible. It also means that space is one of the few places where many nations agree and co-operate freely (although the USA vs China is the one notable exception) as there’s no arms race to be had. Of course space can still be used for military purposes but at least they’re not blowing each other up, further worsening our Kessler Syndrome.
However the Outer Space Treaty doesn’t extend to weapons on a smaller scale, namely firearms or other weapons which could cause grievous bodily harm. I had heard a rumour that Russian space craft had long carried a small firearm along with them as their craft, which typically land on the ground rather than in the sea, had once ended up in a mountain range whereupon the crew was beset by wolves. Personally I didn’t think there was a whole lot of merit to that rumour as the capsules are kind of hard to miss and are easily retrieved by helicopter but apparently the Americans had made similar provisions, except they did not include a firearm. As it turns out the gun in question is quite real and flew in space up until as recently as 2006.
It’s called the TP-82 (pictured above).
On the surface it looks like an overgrown pistol with a long stock attached to the back of it. It’s actually a triple barrelled gun with each of them taking a different type of ammunition. Included in the kit is standard rifle rounds, presumably for taking out those wolves the Russians were so worried about, bird shot (I.E. standard shotgun shells) and flares. The stock was detachable and was actually a machete that had a canvas cover, enabling the returning astronauts and cosmonauts to hack their way through the forest if they happened to land in one. According to many reports it’s something of a decent firearm to use as anyone who’s sent up in a Soyuz capsule is trained in their use, even spaceflight participants.
It seems however that the ammunition for these particular guns has been out of production for quite some time and the remaining reserves have long since expired. Multiple sources I’ve read said that since then the gun has been replaced by a standard Russian army side arm although it seems official sources are rather tight lipped as to whether or not that’s actually the case. Realistically there’s little reason for including them any more anyway so it’s just as likely that they just don’t bother.
The TP-82 is an interesting part of space history both because of the reasons behind its creation and the fact that space is the last place that you’d want to bring a firearm along to. It seems like none of them ever saw any use outside of training missions and many of them ended up as gifts to the commanders of the Soyuz capsules once the mission was over. That’s probably for the best though as I can’t imagine the furore that would be kicked up if one was ever brought out in orbit, let alone if it was used on the ground.
The Proton series of rockets are one of the longest running in the history of spaceflight. They made their debut back in 1965 when the first of them was used to launch the Proton series of scientific satellites which were super high energy cosmic particle detectors. Since then they’ve become the mainstay of the Russian space program being used for pretty much everything from communication satellites to launching the Soyuz and Progress crafts that service the International Space Station. In that time they’ve seen some 384 launches total making it one of the most successful launch platforms to date. However that number also includes 44 full and partial failures, including a few high profile ones that I blogged about a couple years back.
Unfortunately it appears that history has repeated itself today with another Proton crashing in a rather spectacular fashion:
To put this in perspective there’s been about 37 total launches of the Proton rocket since 2010 with 5 of them being either partial or full failures. This isn’t out of line with the current failure rate of the program which hovers around 11% but 4 of those have happened in the last 2 years which is cause for concern. The primary problem seems to be related to the upper stage as 3 of the recent 4 have been due to that failing which can be attributed to it being a revised component that only came into service recently. This particular crash however was not an upper stage failure as it happened long before that component could come online, indicating the problem is with the first stage.
The reasoning behind why this crash ended so spectacularly is pretty interesting as it highlights some of the design differences between the American and Russian designs. Most American launchers have a launch termination system built into them for situations like this, allowing the ground crew to self destruct the rocket mid air should anything like this happen. Russian rockets don’t have such systems and prefer to simply shut down the engines when failures like this happen. However for the safety of the ground crew the engines won’t shut off prior to 42 seconds after launch which is why you see this particular rocket continuously firing right up until it tears itself apart.
Additionally the Russian rockets use a rocket fuel mixture that consists of Unsymmetrical Dimethylhydrazine and Nitrogen Tetroxide. When these two compounds mix together they react in a highly energetic hypergolic reaction, meaning they burn without requiring any ignition source. This is where the giant orange fireball comes from as the aerodynamic stresses on the craft ruptured the fuel and oxidizer tanks, causing them to come into contact and ignite. Other rocket designs usually use liquid oxygen and kerosene which don’t automatically ignite and thus wouldn’t typically produce a fireball like that but the launch termination systems usually ensure that all the remaining fuel is consumed anyway.
Needless to say this doesn’t reflect well on Russia’s launch capabilities but it should be taken in perspective. Whilst the recent failure rate is a cause for concern it has to be noted that the R-7, the rocket that launches both the Progress and Soyuz craft to the ISS, has experienced 0 failures in the same time frame with a very comparable number of launches. It’s quite likely that the failure isn’t part of a larger systemic issue since we’ve had multiple successful launches recently and I’m sure we’ll know the cause sooner rather than later. Hopefully Russia can get the issue resolved before too long and avoid such dramatic incidents in the future.
You’d have to be under a rock (ha!) to have not heard about the recent meteor that entered out atmosphere over Russia on Friday (which just so happened to be my birthday, what a present!). Thanks to the proliferation of cameras everywhere, predominately the dash cams which are common in Russia to avoid insurance scammers, the Chelyabinsk event was pretty well documented from multiple angles. If you had ever wondered what a decent sized asteroid air bursting in the atmosphere would look like and what it’d eventually do you couldn’t really get a better example, even from the wealth of smaller impacts that are witnessed every year.
There’s been a lot of questions about this particular event and I caught a couple of them when I was reading through the comments on some of the videos. One of them that caught my eye was one asking why there appeared to be 2 contrails (I believe it was on this video). From what I can tell that’s probably some time after the air burst as it took the shockwave approximately 2 minutes to reach the surface after it occurred. Reports from various space agencies afterwards state that there was at least 3 probable impact sites which would corroborate my idea of it breaking up after the air burst. Not that there’d be a lot of it left after that however as it was rated at something like 500kt, about an order of magnitude higher than the first atomic bombs.
By far the most common question was how we could have missed something like this when we were quite capable of tracking a near-miss asteroid that just happened to pass by 15 hours later. There are a couple factors at play here but I’ll start with the most pertinent. For starters this is actually quite a small meteor with current estimates pegging its original size at somewhere around 17m² with a total mass of approximately 7000 tons. 2012DA14 was about 2~3 times the size and several orders of magnitude heavier (~190000 tons) making it a lot easier to spot. Secondly whilst we are capable of spotting asteroids like this prior to them entering out atmosphere we purposely limit ourselves to track the bigger ones since they have a much greater chance of causing extinction level events. With greater funding to NASA and related space agencies it would be possible to get more warning about things like this before they happen.
There would still be ones that we wouldn’t see coming unfortunately as depending on their make up and direction they come from they can be incredibly hard to spot. The Chelyabinsk meteor was, as far as we can tell, rocky and this tends have quite a low albedo which makes them quite difficult to track, especially if they come from certain directions where they won’t get much illumination. Large, primarily metallic asteroids are quite easy to track and the most devastating should they collide with us, but they’re also somewhat rare so the vast majority are simply larger rocky asteroids that have a decent albedo.
It will likely be a long, long time before we bear witness to something like this again. Whilst we’re likely to capture any event of note thanks to the proliferation of cameras everywhere there’s still an awful lot of this earth where us humans just aren’t present to see it and as such many events like this go completely unnoticed. It’s a shame really as they’re quite intriguing events and they can help us learn about what will happen should a larger asteroid cross our path one day.
Russia’s space program has a reputation for sticking to ideas once they’ve got them right. Their Soyuz (pronounced sah-yooz) craft are a testament to this, having undergone 4 iterations since their initial inception but still sharing many of the base characteristics that were developed decades ago. The Soyuz family are also the longest serving series of spacecraft in history and with it only having 2 fatal accidents in that time they are well regarded as the safest spacecraft around. It’s no wonder then that 2 of the Soyuz capsules remain permanently docked to the International Space Station to serve as escape pods in the even of a catastrophe, a testament to the confidence the space industry has with them.
Recent news however has brought other parts of the Russia space program into question, namely their Proton launch stack. Last week saw a Proton launched communications satellite ending up in the wrong orbit when the upper orbital insertion model failed to guide it to the proper geostationary orbit. Then just this week saw another Proton launched payload, this time a Progress craft bound for the ISS, crashed shortly after launch:
The robotic Progress 44 cargo ship blasted off atop a Soyuz U rocket at 9 a.m. EDT (1300 GMT) from the central Asian spaceport of Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and was due to arrive at the space station on Friday.
“Unfortunately, about 325 seconds into flight, shortly after the third stage was ignited, the vehicle commanded an engine shutdown due to an engine anomaly,” NASA station program manager Mike Suffredini told reporters today. “The vehicle impacted in the Altai region of the Russian Federation.”
Now an unmanned spacecraft failing after launch wouldn’t be so much of a problem usually (apart from investigating why it happened) but the reason why this particular failure has everyone worried is the similarity between the human carrying Soyuz capsule and the Progress cargo craft that was on top of it. In essence they’re an identical craft with the Progress having a fuel pod instead of a crew capsule allowing it to refuel the ISS on orbit. A failure then with the Progress craft calls into question the Soyuz as well, especially when there’s been 2 launches so close to each other that have experienced problems.
From a crew safety perspective however the Soyuz should still be considered a safe craft. If an event such as the one that happened this week had a Soyuz rather than a Progress on top of it the crew would have been safe thanks to the launch escape system that flies on top of all manned Soyuz capsules. When a launch abort event occurs these rockets fire and pull the capsule safely away from the rest of the launch stack and thanks to the Soyuz’s design it can then descend back to earth on its usual ballistic trajectory. It’s not the softest of landings however, but it’s easily survivable.
The loss of cargo bound for the ISS does mean that some difficult decisions have to be made. Whilst they’re not exactly strapped for supplies at the moment (current estimates have them with a year of breathing room) the time required to do a full investigation into the failure does push other resupply and crew replacement missions back significantly. Russia currently has the only launch system capable of getting humans to and from the ISS and since they’re only a 3 person craft this presents the very real possibility that the ISS crew will be scaled back. Whilst I’m all aflutter for SpaceX their manned flights aren’t expected to come online until the middle of the decade and they’re the most advanced option at this point. If the problems with the Proton launch stack can be sorted expediently then the ISS may remain fully crewed, but only time will tell if this is the case.
The Soyuz and Progress series have proven to be some of the most reliable spacecraft developed to date and I have every confidence that Russia will be able to overcome these problems as they have done so in the past. Incidents like this demonstrate how badly commercialization of rudimentary space activities is required, especially when one of the former space powers doesn’t seem that interested in space anymore. Thankfully the developing private space industry is more than up to the challenge and we’re only a few short years away from these sorts of problems boiling down to switching manufacturers, rather than curtailing our efforts in space completely.
There’s a saying amongst the space enthusiast community that the shuttle only continued on for so long in order to build the International Space Station and the ISS only existed so that the shuttle had some place to go. Indeed for the last 13 years of the shuttle program it pretty much exclusively visited the ISS taking only a few missions elsewhere, usually to service the Hubble Space Telescope. With the shuttle now retired many are looking now looking towards the future of the ISS and the various manned space programs that have contributed to its creation. It’s now looking very likely that the ISS will face the same fate as Mir did before it, but there are a multitude of possibilities of what could be done instead.
Originally the ISS was slated for decommission in 2016 and with it still not being fully constructed (it is expected to be finished by next year) that would give it a full useful life of only 4 years. The deadline was extended back in 2009 to 2020 in order to more closely match the designed functional lifetime of 7 years and hopefully recoup some of the massive investment that has gone into it. It was a good move and many of the ISS components are designed to last well beyond that deadline (especially the Russian ones which can be refurbished on orbit) and there’s still plenty of science that can be done using it as a platform.
The ISS, like Mir before it, has only one option for retirement: a fiery plunge through the atmosphere into a watery grave. Whilst there’s been lots of talk of boosting it up to a higher orbit, sending it to the moon or even using it as an interplanetary craft all these ideas are simply infeasible. The ISS was designed and built to be stuck in low earth orbit its entire life with many assumptions made that preclude it from going any further. It lacks the proper shielding to go any higher than say the Hubble Space Telescope and the structure is too weak to withstand the required amount of thrust that would get it to a transit orbit (at least in any reasonable time frame). The modifications required to make such ideas feasible would be akin to rebuilding the entire station again and thus to avoid cluttering up the already cluttered area of low earth orbit it must be sent back down to earth.
Russia however has expressed interest in keeping at least some of the parts of the ISS in orbit past the 2020 deadline. It appears they want to use them as a base for their next generation space station OPSEK. This space station would differ significantly from all the previous space stations in that it would be focused on deep space exploration activities rather than direct science like its predecessors were. It would seem that those plans have hit some roadblocks as the Russian Federal Space Agency has recently stated that the ISS will need to be de-orbited at the end of its life. Of course there’s still a good 8 years to go before this will happen and the space game could change completely between now and then, thanks in part to China and the private space industry.
China has tried to be part of the ISS project in the past but has usually faced strong opposition from the USA. So strong was the opposition that they have now started their own independent manned space program with an eye to set up their own permanent space station called Tiangong. China has already succeeded in putting several people into space and even successfully conducted an extravehicular activity (EVA), showing that they have much of the needed technology to build and maintain a presence in space. Coincidentally much of their technology was imported from Russia meaning that their craft are technically capable of docking with the Russian segments of the ISS. That’s also good news for Russia as well as their Soyuz craft could provide transport services to Tiangong in the future.
Private space companies are also changing the space ecosystem significantly, both in regards to transport costs and providing services in space. SpaceX has just been approved to roll up two of its demonstration missions to the ISS which means that the next Dragon capsule will actually end up docking with the ISS. Should this prove successful SpaceX would then begin flying routine cargo missions to the ISS and man rating of their capsule would begin in earnest. Couple this with Bigelow Aerospace gearing up to launch their next inflatable space habitat in 2014~2015 the possibility of the ISS being re-purposed by private industry becomes a possible (if slightly far fetched) idea.
The next decade is definitely going to be one of the most fascinating ones for space technologies. The power international power dynamic is shifting considerably with super powers giving way to private industry and new players wowing the world stage with the capabilities. We may not have a definitive future for the ISS but its creation and continued use has provided much of the ground work necessary to flag in the next era of space.
50 years is an almost incomprehensible amount of time for a young person like myself. That’s nearly double my entire time on this planet and even in my short 26 years I’ve seen wild changes to this world, so I can only imagine the changes anyone someone who has lived 50 years or more has seen. One of the most incredible changes that the last 5 decades has brought us has been the invention of space flight which has dramatically influenced humanity as we know it today, even if its presence is mostly invisible. Two days ago saw the anniversary of our very first tenuous steps into the final frontier with the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becoming the first ever human to enter space and orbit our beautiful blue marble.
Winding the clock back 50 years puts us right in the middle of the cold war, a political battle fought over decades on a global scale. The first artificial satellite was created just 4 years prior and the space race between the then USSR and the USA had reached a fever pitch. Both sides were working fervently to stake their claim on being the first to accomplish anything in space and at this point the Russians were winning after their success with Sputnik. They weren’t resting on the laurels however and they were aggressively pursuing the goal of getting the first man into space. The mission was to be called Vostok 1.
The craft Gagarin was to ride into space wasn’t a large one by any stretch of the imagination, being a mere 2.3 meters in diameter and looking a lot more like a submersible craft than one destined for the vacuum of space. In true Russian fashion it was also incredibly robust and when compared to its American counterparts it was incredibly simple. The craft also lacked any control surfaces and didn’t have any backup thrusters, which is why the craft was mostly spherical, since unlike the American craft it couldn’t orientate a heat shield to protect it on re-entry. This also meant that in the event that retrorockets didn’t fire Gagarin would have been stuck in orbit for up to 10 days, and as such the craft was equipped with enough supplies to ensure that he’d survive.
The mission began at 5:30AM, 12th of April 1961. Both Gagarin and his backup pilot, Gherman Titov, were awoken at this time with the launch scheduled to start 2 hours later. Things went pretty smoothly although doctors reported that Gagarin wasn’t himself at this time, being somewhat pale and unusually reserved. Still in comparison to Titov, who had to take medication to calm himself down, Gagarin was as calm as ever with a resting heart rate of that of a long distance runner. About an hour after being awoken he was secured in the Vostok capsule (which had to be resealed once due to it failing the first time) and was left in there for another 40 minutes before blasting off into space.
In total Gagarin spent just over an hour orbiting the earth, completing one full orbit and touching down in a field outside of Engels in the Saratov region. His descent from the heavens startled a farmer and his daughter who witnessed this alien like creature in an orange suit with a white helmet descending from the heavens. He later recalled the situation:
When they saw me in my space suit and the parachute dragging alongside as I walked, they started to back away in fear. I told them, don’t be afraid, I am a Soviet like you, who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow!
Gagarin and his capsule were both successfully recovered. He returned back to Moscow a hero and a figure that will be remembered as one of the great pioneers of the final frontier. Although he never orbited the earth again he was heavily involved in the USSR’s space program afterwards, helping design new craft and was a backup pilot for the very first Soyuz mission a craft that is still in use today. Tragically his life was cut short in 1968 in a routine test flight over a Russian air base, but the legacy he laid down will last on for as long as humanity exists.
I’ve often said that I don’t give the Russians enough attention on this blog and they should be recognized for their amazing accomplishments in space. 50 years on the influence of early pioneers like Gagarin and his team are clearly visible in all facets of the Russian space program. It’s a testament to their strong ideals of simplicity and robustness that a craft designed decades ago can still be in service today and still meet the needs of both NASA and the ROSCOSMOS. Whilst I may be a bit late to the party in remembering the great feats of the Russian space program I hope you’ll join me today in recognizing their accomplishments, and wishing them all the best for the next 50 years.
I must admit I don’t give the Russians enough credit for the work they do in space. If a Shuttle launches you can bet your bottom dollar that I’ll write a post up about it and guaranteed I’ll be letting everyone else know about it if they don’t read my blog. Still at least 5 times a year Russia launches up a Soyuz craft carrying 3 *nauts and in between those they launch another 4 or so Progress craft to resupply the International Space Station. So whilst their craft might not be as iconic and grandiose as the Shuttle they are in essence the innovators of cheap, reliable access to space and have been for many decades.
Really though Russia’s prowess in terms of pioneering space technologies goes much further than that. Today 39 years ago they launched an extremely ambitious project called Salyut-1, the first ever space station. For the most part you would call it an observatory as the majority of the work during the Salyut’s maiden flight was Earth facing observation plus a few deep space spectrographs. Like with all firsts in space there were many problems with the first flight being unable to dock due to their docking couple failing and the second crew, who were tragically lost upon re-entry but have since ensured that none will be lost in that way again, were forced out of the station due to numerous problems including an electrical fire (probably the worst thing that can happen in high pressure oxygen rich environments).
The Salyuts were fairly spacious for their time having just under 100m³ of area for the visiting cosmonauts (compare that to the ISS’s living volume of 373m³). Couple that with 20 portholes that littered the space craft and life up there wouldn’t have been too bad. Especially for those cosmonauts who were used to the cramped confines of the Soyuz which, up until recently, didn’t even have a window for the orbital module (not that it needed it anyway). Taking a tour of the inside reveals that most areas had enough room to be quite comfortable, they even had a treadmill.
True to their core philosophies of truly repeatable mission profiles Salyut 1 wasn’t the last of its kind. The Salyut mission profiles flew another 8 missions and were responsible for many of the components that made up the Mir Space Station that followed. The last of the Salyut series even managed to stay up in orbit for over 4 years and was visited repeatedly by a total of 10 crews. If you compare that to the American offering of the same time who managed to keep a station in orbit for 6 years but only ever managed to visit it 3 times you can see why that even today the core of our biggest space station ever is in fact a Russian module called Zvezda. It’s no wonder the Chinese turned to Russia for their space program.
The Salyut craft also had a slightly darker side with 3 of the missions (2, 3 and 5) designated as Almaz military Orbital Piloted Stations. These are the only (known) craft to ever fly weapons in space and whilst they didn’t carry anything really destructive, a Nudelman-Rikhter NR-23, it was still successfully fired at a test satellite on orbit. Other than that however they were just your typical military operation with the exception that they were piloted by humans on orbit rather than on the ground.
Despite this however the Salyut missions were another step forward in humanity’s endeavours in space and we owe a great deal to Russia for them. Without their courage and sacrifice there’s no telling how much longer it would have taken us to big something as impressive as the ISS or the technology to keep humans alive in orbit for a period that was measured in months instead of weeks. I believe I speak for many of us space nuts in saying that on today of all days we salute you Russia.
If there’s one thing I’m a sucker for it’s a good light show. When I used to live out in the country I had an absolutely fantastic view of the night sky and I can remember spending many nights laying on top of our concrete water tank staring up at the sky. I even remember waking up at 2am one morning to spend a chilly couple hours watching an extremely active meteor shower (I can’t remember exactly which one it was, but it most likely the Leonids). You can then imagine my excitement when I heard of this spectacular light show that dazzled Norway:
Apparently, this is not a Photoshopped image, as there are several more just like it, taken from various locations. This morning in northern Norway, people saw a strange light in the sky which shocked residents and so far, the phenomenon has yet to be explained. This picture was taken from a pier, looking to the east, approximately at 07.50 am local time. “I can imagine that it went on for two, three minutes,” said the photographer Jan Petter Jørgensen. “It was unbelievable. I was quite shaken when I saw it.”
“It consisted initially of a green beam of light similar in colour to the aurora with a mysterious rotating spiral at one end,” said another eyewitness, Nick Banbury of Harstad, quoted on Spaceweather.com. “This spiral then got bigger and bigger until it turned into a huge halo in the sky with the green beam extending down to the earth. According to the press, this could be seen all over northern norway and must therefore have been very high up in the atmosphere to be seen hundreds of km apart.”
It didn’t take long for people to speculate that this was probably due to some kind of rocket launch. As it turns out (as shown in the article) it was in fact a Russian Bulava missile which has had quite a checkered past. It’s designed to penetrate missile defense systems by being able to withstand a nuclear blast from 500m away as well as launching up to 6 warheads plus countermeasures all from the one launch vehicle. It’s an impressively scary beast to behold, except for the fact that 7 out of its 13 launches have ended in failure. Still this missile is interesting for other reasons as well, namely because of the way it failed.
When you’re designing a new launch system you’re pretty guaranteed to have a fair few failures in the initial design and testing stages. NASA was known for putting on quite a show back in their hay days, launching every other week which usually ended up with the payload exploding mid flight. Whilst it would appear from the ground that this was because of some failure on the rocket’s part in general when a launch system explodes during testing its usually the ground crew telling the rocket to explode. They do this in order to protect us civilians since a rocket capable of orbital (or even sub-orbital) speeds could very easily make its way into populated territory. If the rocket is misbehaving the last thing you want it doing is flying until its out of fuel, so the next best thing is to make it self destruct before it can do any damage.
Looking at this picture it would appear that whoever was testing this rocket either didn’t have the capability to initiate a self destruct or simply choose not to. The reports I’ve been reading regarding the incident have Russia admitting to it being a failure of the third stage which caused the rocket to tumble out of control. Since it had completed its first two stages it was probably several hundred kilometers above the Earth (its highest point is 1000km according to Astronautix) so letting it spiral out of control was probably the best option for it. Detonating at that height would give rise to quite a bit of debris, some of which would gain the required momentum to achieve orbit (albeit unstable).
You might then be thinking: why didn’t they just shut the damn thing off? Well therein lies the problem. Much like the two boosters that are strapped to the side of the rust coloured fuel tank of the shuttle the Bulava missile is what we call a solid rocket booster. The entire propulsion system is basically a giant firework and once its lit it can’t really be put out except when it explodes. So once the Bulava was in the air it was either keep flying until it was out of fuel or blow up spectacularly, either way we were in for a bit of a light show. Russia’s choice of failure mode was probably the safest, and no one will deny it was the coolest.
Even though Russia was testing something designed specifically for war, something I’m usually against, I still can’t help but marvel at it. It’s a decidedly Russian design and despite its failures Bulava is still quite an awesome piece of tech to behold. Even more so when it puts on a show like this for us