Ever since the tradegy of the Columbia disaster many additional safety precautions were put in place to ensure that in the event that the shuttle could not be guaranteed to make it back to earth there would at least be somewhere for it to hang out while the rescue crew was sent up. Right now that takes the form of the International Space Station which is well equipped to accomodate the additional crew. I’ve previously blogged about NASA’s last planned rescue mission for the hubble but up until now I’d never mentioned how they actually go about the process of determining if the shuttle is damaged or not. Typically it is done with what’s being referred to now as a “belly flop” when it’s actually closer to the inside loop manuever (although that’s moot as well since the shuttle is rotating around its center axis, there’s no real equivalent):
During this time the ISS crew takes several hundred photographs of the exterior heat shield on the shuttle and then sends them back down to mission control for inspection. This gives us a good idea if any damage was caused during launch and what the chances are of the shuttle making it back to earth. This isn’t the only time they perform such a task either, as just before they take off the ISS crew will perform a similar check to make sure that no micro-meteroites or space debris caused any major damage. When the shuttle Atlantis went up to the Hubble they used a similar procedure using the payload bay arm to get to the underside of the shuttle.
The video is pretty darn awesome in its own regard since it really demonstrates what space flight is really like. Such a manuever can not be performed by any aircraft and to see such a huge structure slowly rotating itself around is just beautiful. I can see it making a few people a bit motion sick though with the backdrop of the earth below it whipping along at 25,000KM+ per hour. Which brings me to another point, NASA completely fails at geography.
Friends on Facebook and my beloved followers on Twitter (go on, follow me ;)) will have already picked up on me retweeting this slight fail from NASA:
Shuttle Atlantis docked with the station at 11:51a ET while flying 220 miles up between Australia and Tasmania.
Now while I like to make fun of Tasmania as much as the next mainlander the fact still stands that yes our little apple isle is a part of this wonderful country. To say that the ISS passed above the area between “Australia” and “Tasmania” may give some the wrong impression that Tasmania is its own country. If they said mainland Australia or the Bass Strait we’d be all peachy but whoever is behind NASA’s twitter feed needs a boot up the bum. Universe Today also gets a mention of shame for regurgitating that nonsense, since they’re supposed to be a respectable source of space news.
I had planned to write off this entire weekend on gaming (Nearing the end of Dragon Age: Origins and picked up Assassin’s Creed 2 yesterday) but it looks like I’ll be spoilt with a constant background of live feeds from STS-129. It will definitely make for good watching whilst I’m getting my home vSphere deployment up, but more on that next week 😉
The twilight years of any space program are usually filled with extremely interesting times. For the most part you’re either gearing up for the next biggest thing or getting ready to plunge your craft back down to earth in a spectacular fireworks show. STS-129, which launched at around 6:30am AEST, is the former as it brings with it a truckload of spare parts, many experiments and something that has got me all flustered about the future of the International Space Station. There’s the usual media coverage as well as a NASA tweetup giving blow by blow accounts of mission as it goes ahead. Of course there’s a lovely 10 minute video of the launch and trip into orbit.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xfMbPOZMaAs
The first part of the payload is 2 ExPRESS Logistics Carriers which combined weigh a total of around 13 tons. These are primarily filled with spares and other equipment necessary to ensure that the station can function properly. As the shuttle is one of only 2 craft (the other being the Japanese HTV as I mentioned previously) that can bring up large sized cargo it makes sense that they’ve crammed 2 of these things into its payload bay. They’ll spend most of their life attached to the main truss segments, only being accessed when the parts are needed. They are in essence, giant supply crates.
Another payload they are bringing up is a Materials on International Space Station Experiment (MISSE) carrier which is an experiment designed to see how certain materials and coatings hold up in space. They’ve flown a few of these before with the ones being sent up now having the designation of MISSE 7A and 7B respectively. Back before the days of the International Space Station they did similar experiments to these on a much larger scale. The Long Duration Exposure Facility was a school bus sized version of MISSE that flew on STS-32. It was initially envisioned as a one year project being repeated multiple times but due to budget constraints and the tragic Challenger disaster its retrieval was postponed indefinitely. It was eventually retrieved however after almost 6 years in orbit after STS-41C launched a communications satellite for the navy. The launch of this expriment made for quite an impressive picture to:
There’s a couple other minor things flying as well, like a S-band Antenna Sub-Assembly which is being flown up as a spare. The mission’s experiments consist of a microbe experiment (to see how they grow in microgravity), some butterfly larvae which will hatch on the station and be studied alongside their cousins which have been raised by school kids from over 100 schools across the US and finally a plant experiment to see how microgravity affects their growth. Pretty standard stuff, but that’s not what’s got me so excited.
The Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) UHF communication unit is being flown up with STS-129. For those of you in the know the COTS program is a NASA initiative focused on encouraging private industry to develop launch capabilities that NASA can then purchase from them. This particular piece of equipment is developed by none other than my space crush company SpaceX, and will facilitate communication between the ISS and the future manned space capsule called Dragon. It’s a tantalizingly real step towards a fully private institution providing transportation to the ISS, something which has never been done before. It also shows that all of SpaceX’s work is very real and they’re extremely serious about making sure that once the shuttle retires that NASA will have a local alternative to get their astronauts up into space. Back a few years ago it was hard to judge whether or not SpaceX would be able to provide such capability to NASA. Today it is a guarantee.
So whilst this isn’t the most sexy mission (that still belongs to the Hubble servicing mission that just oozed cool) it is definitely a big step forward for the future of space. The ISS is being geared up for the shuttle’s retirement by stocking it up with all the goods it will need for a long time whilst SpaceX continues to push the envelope in terms of its capability. Next year’s test launch of the Falcon-9 rocket really can’t come soon enough and I know it won’t be long before the Dragon meets the ISS.
Blog fodder doesn’t get much better than this 😉