Three new residents for the International Space Station have arrived safely at the expansive orbital outpost, following a record-setting “fast rendezvous.” Soyuz TMA-09M Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin of Russia, together with Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano and NASA’s Karen Nyberg, docked successfully at the Earth-facing Rassvet module at 10:10 p.m. EDT Tuesday, some five hours and 39 minutes after launching from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. This slightly eclipsed the previous record of five hours and 45 minutes, set by Soyuz TMA-08M crewmen Pavel Vinogradov, Aleksandr Misurkin, and Chris Cassidy, who journeyed to the ISS in late March. Less than two hours after docking—following standard pressure and other checks—the hatches were opened and Vinogradov’s team welcomed the new arrivals as the second half of Expedition 36.
Virtually everything about last night’s flight into space ran to perfection. Launch occurred on time at 4:31 p.m. EDT Tuesday (2:31 a.m. local Kazakh time Wednesday) from the historic Site 1/5 at the desolate Baikonur complex, from which Yuri Gagarin began his pioneering mission more than five decades ago. However, the fast-rendezvous protocol involves a docking at the ISS within six hours and four orbits of leaving Earth … and this necessitated a complex series of thruster firings and a precisely-timed launch. “Tonight’s launch was carefully timed to occur at a precise moment where orbital mechanics allow it to catch up and chase down the ISS,” explained AmericaSpace’s Launch Tracker in the minutes after injection into a preliminary orbit. “This results in an instantaneous launch window, with no leeway.”
It has been a long day for the Soyuz TMA-09M crew. They were helped into their Sokol launch and entry suits about four hours ahead of liftoff and were in their specially contoured seats aboard the Soyuz descent module approximately two hours later. With Yurchikhin in the center seat, commanding today’s flight into space, flanked by Nyberg and Parmitano, the trio participated in a series of checks of their suits and the spacecraft. With an hour to go, the launch vehicle was transferred to its inertial guidance system and technicians began the evacuation of the pad area.
“It is a balmy night at Baikonur tonight,” noted AmericaSpace’s Launch Tracker at T-15 minutes, “with temperatures around 20C and clear skies. It will be a good launch tonight.”
Indeed it was.
Inside the control bunker, the “launch key” was inserted at T-5 minutes and the final phase of the countdown saw the completion of nitrogen purging, pressurization of the rocket’s tanks, and topping-off of its cryogenic propellants. A minute before launch, the rocket—a descendent of the vehicle which once boosted Yuri Gagarin on his pioneering mission—transitioned to internal power supplies. At T-10 seconds, the engine turbopumps reached full speed and the engines themselves were confirmed to be at maximum thrust a few seconds later. This resulted in the retraction of the pad’s fueling tower and a spectacular liftoff into the darkened Baikonur sky.
Five engines boosted the first stage of Soyuz TMA-09M’s ascent. The central “core” of the rocket was fed by a single RD-108 powerplant, whilst four tapering strap-on boosters were each equipped with a single RD-107 engine. All were built in Samara, Russia, and were propelled by a mixture of liquid oxygen and a refined form of rocket-grade kerosene, known as “RP-1.” Within a minute of clearing the tower, these five engines had pushed the vehicle to a velocity in excess of 1,100 mph. At T+118 seconds, the strap-on boosters were jettisoned, as planned, leaving the core alone to continue to push into low-Earth orbit, under the impulse of its RD-108 engine.
By the two-minute mark, Yurchikhin, Parmitano, and Nyberg had passed 3,350 mph and, shortly thereafter, the escape tower and launch shroud separated, exposing Soyuz TMA-09M to vacuum. Four minutes and 58 seconds after leaving the desolate steppe of Central Asia, the core booster was jettisoned at an altitude of about 105.6 statute miles and the third and final stage ignited, boosting the Soyuz to a velocity of more than 13,420 mph. Finally, when the third stage separated, about nine minutes after launch, Yurchikhin, Parmitano, and Nyberg were in space. It marked Yurchikhin’s fourth space mission, Nyberg’s second, and the first taste of space for Parmitano.
Within minutes of orbital insertion, Soyuz TMA-09M’s antennas and solar arrays were successfully deployed, priming the craft for its approach to the ISS. The first two computer-commanded thruster firings were executed within the first 90-minute orbit of Earth, followed by several more in the next five hours. This brought the Soyuz to a smooth docking at 10:10 p.m. EDT, about six minutes ahead of schedule. Yurchikhin—who is the first Russian cosmonaut to fly a fourth mission to the International Space Station—and his two crewmates will remain aboard the outpost until mid-November, first as members of Expedition 36 and later as the core of Expedition 37.
Yesterday’s launch was the second piloted ISS mission to follow the same-day rendezvous and docking profile, after Soyuz TMA-08M delivered Vinogradov, Misurkin, and Cassidy to the station. Such rapid dockings are nothing new—all three Skylab crews in the early 1970s arrived at their orbital home a mere eight or nine hours after launch—but it has been typical during ISS operations to follow a longer, two-day approach, which proved more economical in terms of propellant expenditure and the demands of celestial mechanics. However, the confines of Russia’s tiny Soyuz are cramped and highly stressful and often exacerbate sensations of nausea and motion sickness. Getting crews to the station sooner, though hugely complex, was considered highly desirable.
Space analyst James Oberg, writing last year, noted that the ISS fast-rendezvous plan involved a ballet of between four and six thruster firings to create the proper conditions for an early docking. “The destination in space,” wrote Oberg, “must be lined up much more precisely in a narrow ‘slot’ in the sky. With the two-day profile, that destination could be anywhere halfway along the ISS’ round-the-world orbital track … but with the fast-track rendezvous, the target must be maneuvered in advance into a segment of the target’s orbit that is only 20 degrees wide at the time of the spacecraft’s launch.” Last August, Russia’s unmanned Progress M-16M resupply craft demonstrated the concept by completing a docking, just six hours after liftoff. This was followed, in March, by the first piloted trial, involving the Soyuz TMA-08M crew.
“It’s a really exciting and interesting concept to do,” explained Chris Cassidy in his pre-flight NASA interview. “Typically, we’ll launch on one day, go to bed, be up that whole second day with a few tasks and activities, but not much significant activity, and then go to sleep again and wake up and rendezvous on that third day. We’ll scrunch that whole timeline down into about a six-hour period. The interesting thing from a human point of view is we don’t have time to take off our space suits, so we’ll be strapped into our seats for the whole duration of that six-hour period, plus the pre-launch activities. It’ll be a long day and a lot of time in the suits.”
Much drama has surrounded the ISS in recent weeks, with a planned spacewalk from the station’s Russian segment in April and a contingency excursion from the U.S. segment less than three weeks ago. Five more EVAs are planned in the summer—three involving Yurchikhin and Misurkin and two by Cassidy and Parmitano—to accomplish a range of repair, maintenance, and preparatory tasks. On 26 June, Yurchikhin and Misurkin will replace a fluid flow regulator on the Zarya control module, the oldest part of the station. “It’s now 15 years old,” Yurchikhin explained, “and … it continues to work, but the rule to give the station more life, we should change this for a new one.” The duo will also remove a gamma and optical radiation device from the Zvezda service module, photograph and sample multi-layer insulation, and test the Kurs rendezvous hardware.
Two more EVAs by Yurchikhin and Misurkin will follow on 15 and 21 August and are devoted to preparing the Russian segment for the arrival of the long-delayed Nauka Multi-Purpose Laboratory Module (MLM), whose launch is tentatively scheduled for December 2013. During the excursions, the cosmonauts will route power feeders and networking cables from Zarya’s pressurized adaptor to the Poisk module to transfer electrical power from the U.S. segment to the MLM. They will also set up exterior experiments and photograph samples of thermal insulation. In the meantime, Chris Cassidy and Luca Parmitano are slated to support a pair of EVAs on 9 July and 16 July. These will see the astronauts heavily involved in the routing of power and data cables for the MLM, as well as removing and replacing a Space-to-Ground Transmitter Receiver Controller, installing a radiator grapple bar, and retrieving a mast camera from the Mobile Base System. They will also fit the first of two jumper cables onto the station’s Z-1 truss, recover samples from the Materials ISS Experiment (MISSE), replace a camera on the Japanese exposed facility, and perform “get-ahead” tasks.
With the drama of the EVAs keeping the entire Expedition 36 crew busy throughout the summer, Vinogradov and his team will welcome a steady train of visitors, including Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV)-4 “Albert Einstein” in June, Russia’s Progress M-20M in July, and Japan’s Kounotori-4 (“White Stork”) in August. Expedition 36 crewmen Vinogradov, Misurkin, and Cassidy will return to Earth on 11 September, with command of the station handed over to Yurchikhin to herald the start of Expedition 37. Barely 24 hours after the departure of their comrades, on 12 September, according to the current manifest, Orbital Sciences Corp. will launch a month-long demonstration mission of its Cygnus cargo ship atop the Antares booster.
Looking further ahead, the second half of Expedition 37—Soyuz TMA-10M crewmen Oleg Kotov, Sergei Ryazansky, and Mike Hopkins—will launch from Baikonur on 25 September, returning the ISS to six-person strength. And, if the schedule holds, in early November the station will host as many as nine crew members simultaneously. According to NASASpaceflight.com, an EVA from the Russian segment by Kotov and Ryazansky is planned for 9 November, and the arrival of Soyuz TMA-11M crewmen Mikhail Tyurin, Rick Mastracchio, and Koichi Wakata has been correspondingly brought forward to 7 November.
With Yurchikhin, Parmitano, and Nyberg slated to land on 11 November, this will create a temporary nine-person ISS population for the first time since the end of the shuttle era. Ordinarily, the international partners operate a system of “indirect” crew rotations, in which a given subset of an increment will depart before its replacement arrives—reducing a crew from six to three, then back to six—and it would appear that the “direct” rotation planned in November is based on operational concerns, rather than the beginning of a new crew-rotation policy.
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