At the stroke of midnight, Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) on 1 January, Expedition 46 Commander Scott Kelly of NASA, his Russian crewmates Mikhail Kornienko, Sergei Volkov, and Yuri Malenchenko, together with U.S. astronaut Tim Kopra and Britain’s Tim Peake, welcomed 2016. It is a year which will witness the arrival at the International Space Station (ISS) of as many as four SpaceX Dragons, two Orbital ATK Enhanced Cygnus freighters, three Russian Progresses, and four piloted Soyuz vehicles. In March, the 12-month mission of Kelly and Kornienko will come to an end, whilst in late August Expedition 48 Commander Jeff Williams should eclipse Kelly’s national record for the most flight-experienced U.S. astronaut and as many as four U.S. EVAs and three Russian EVAs are timetabled to occur at various stages throughout the year.
For Kelly and Kornienko—who were launched aboard Soyuz TMA-16M last 26/27 March, alongside Russian cosmonaut Gennadi Padalka—their (almost) one-year voyage aboard the ISS has now passed its 82-percent-complete mark. Present plans call for Kelly and Kornienko to return to Earth in early March, together with Russia’s Sergei Volkov, who has joined them since September, aboard Soyuz TMA-18M. According to Novosti Kosmonavtiki, their landing in north-central Kazakhstan is tentatively scheduled for 10:33 a.m. local time (7:33 a.m. Moscow Time) on 2 March. If this plan holds, Kelly and Kornienko should chalk up about 340 days, eight hours, and 50 minutes of flight time, and more than 5,400 orbits of the Home Planet, thus establishing theirs as the fourth-longest single space mission ever undertaken in human history.
With the successful return of Cygnus to the space station on the OA-4 mission last month and SpaceX’s spectacular return to flight (and return to land) of its Upgraded Falcon 9 booster on 21 December, the door has opened to a potentially spectacular 2016. Current plans call for the arrival of as many as four SpaceX Dragons, two Orbital ATK Enhanced Cygnuses and three of Russia’s upgraded “Progress-MS” supply freighters, as well as the departure on 25 January of the OA-4 Cygnus, after seven weeks berthed at the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) interface of the station’s Unity node. The Cygnus’ departure marks the first occasion that a commercial visitor had ever berthed at Unity nadir. The station now has two berthing locations—at Unity nadir and Harmony nadir—for future Cygnuses, Dragons, and HTVs, and will eventually have two docking interfaces at the respective Pressurized Mating Adapters (PMAs) at Harmony’s space-facing (or “zenith”) and forward-facing ports to support the arrival and departure of Commercial Crew vehicles from 2017 onward.
Following the departure of OA-4, the next visitor will be SpaceX’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS)-8 Dragon, targeted to launch on 8 February. As previously noted by AmericaSpace, CRS-8 will deliver the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) to the space station. Following its capture and berthing at Harmony nadir, via the 57.7-foot-long (17.6-meter) Canadarm2, efforts to remove BEAM and transfer it to its eventual location at the aft-facing port of the Tranquility node will get underway.
“BEAM is a combined ground and crew operation,” NASA’s Rob Navias recently told AmericaSpace, “somewhere around five days or so after Dragon berthing.” It was also pointed out that the movement of the inflatable module—which measures about 13 feet (4 meters) in length and 10.5 feet (3.2 meters) in diameter, offering a habitable internal volume of 565 cubic feet (16 cubic meters)—will be conducted remotely from the ground. The operation to transfer BEAM from Dragon’s unpressurized trunk and rigidly attach it to the Common Berthing Mechanism (CBM) of Tranquility’s aft port is expected to require about eight hours, although the actual “expansion” of the module will not occur immediately and is scheduled to take place “within four months” of its arrival. Mr. Navias has stressed that “no timetable” has been set for the first crew ingress or activity inside BEAM, but that “it will not be immediately.”
The slight movement of CRS-8 from its original target of early January has allowed a planned 6.5-hour spacewalk in U.S.-built Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) suits—originally designated “U.S. EVA-34” but since renamed “U.S. EVA-35,” following the short-notice spacewalk by Kelly and Kopra to tend to a Mobile Transporter (MT) issue on 21 December—to be moved forward from the end of January to mid-month, with current predictions indicating that it will take place on the 15th.
According to Mr. Navias, the identities of the EVA crewmen have yet to be determined, although Novosti has noted that Kopra and Peake are expected to perform the spacewalk. Kopra will serve as “EV1,” the lead spacewalker, with red stripes on the legs of his suit for identification, and will wear EMU Serial No. 3011, which he previously used for U.S. EVA-34. His crewmate will wear EMU Serial No. 3008, which will undergo testing in the Quest airlock next week. “We have to verify that Peake’s suit is good to go before he is approved to go EVA,” Mr. Navias told AmericaSpace on Friday, “since he cannot size up to another suit.” He also added that Kelly and Volkov would provide “Intravehicular” (IV) support.
As previously detailed by AmericaSpace, the primary focus of U.S. EVA-35 will be the removal and replacement of one of eight Sequential Shunt Units (SSUs), following the failure of Power Channel 1B on the station’s S-6 truss in November 2015. The SSUs serve to regulate power generated by the expansive Solar Array Wings (SAWs) at an established “set-point” of 160 volts, by shunting and unshunting 82 array “strings,” thus ensuring steady electrical output across the station. Although the failed channel was quickly recovered, its loss was traced to a power short within the 1B SSU, necessitating its replacement with a spare unit already aboard the ISS. Similar failures and similar EVA removal and replacement activities have occurred in the past.
Following the 1B SSU replacement, the faulty unit will be brought back to the airlock for return to Earth aboard CRS-8 in March. With their primary goal behind them, the U.S. EVA-35 timeline remains “in work,” according to Mr. Navias, although he stressed that they are expected to lay additional cables for the arrival of the two International Docking Adapters (IDAs), the first of which will arrive aboard SpaceX’s CRS-9 Dragon in late March. Associated work was performed by spacewalkers last year and Scott Kelly also tended to cable routing as one of his “get-ahead” tasks on the recent U.S. EVA-34.
Kopra and his EVA crewmate will also reinstall the Non-Propulsive Valve (NPV) into a very tight area, close to the port-side end cone of the Tranquility node. The NPV was removed by Expedition 42 spacewalker Barry “Butch” Wilmore during U.S. EVA-30 back in February 2015, in order to provide better clearance for the Leonardo PMM relocation in May. After several months stored inside the station, the reinstallation of the NPV was expected to be performed by Kjell Lindgren during U.S. EVA-32 in October 2015, but was deferred, and only now is it being returned to its original location. The spacewalkers will remove a cover plate, installed by Wilmore, then secure the NPV back into position with four bolts. Their final task is expected to involve the removal of a failed light on Camera Group (CG)-9, situated on the station’s P-1 truss.
By the beginning of March, with U.S. EVA-35 and the CRS-8 Dragon and BEAM arrivals behind them, the curtain will fall on almost a full year aboard the ISS by Kelly and Kornienko. Together with Volkov, who has accompanied them since September 2015, they will undock and return to Earth, leaving Kopra in command of Expedition 47. Alighting on the desolate steppe of north-central Kazakhstan, Kelly and Kornienko will have spent more than 340 days in space—and positioned themselves comfortably within the Top 20 most flight-experienced spacefarers of all time—whilst Volkov have accrued 182 days aloft.
Under Kopra’s command, Expedition 47 will function at three-person strength for the next two weeks, before Soyuz TMA-20M launches from Baikonur on 19 March and brings U.S. astronaut Jeff Williams and Russian cosmonauts Alexei Ovchinin and Oleg Skripochka to the station. This will be a busy period, with both of NASA’s Commercial Cargo providers expected to fly in March. First, on the 10th, the OA-6 Cygnus will be delivered into orbit atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 401 booster. This will be Orbital ATK’s second ULA launch, negotiated in the aftermath of the October 2014 ORB-3 launch failure as a means of continuing Cygnus operations whilst the company prepares to return its homegrown Antares rocket to flight in mid-2016.
Two weeks later, and shortly after the arrival of Williams, Ovchinin, and Skripochka, SpaceX will launch its CRS-9 Dragon, carrying IDA-2. Although this was originally intended to be the “backup” Commercial Crew docking adapter, attached to the zenith port of Harmony, the loss of IDA-1 in June 2015 has pressed it into the “primary” role. It will therefore be mounted onto the forward port of Harmony. A replacement (IDA-3) is in the process of being assembled from spare parts and will be launched in the spring of 2017 aboard SpaceX’s CRS-14 Dragon to take IDA-2’s original position.
Shortly after the Dragon berths at the station, the Expedition 47 crew and ground controllers will remove the 1,150-pound (520-kg) IDA-2 from the spacecraft’s trunk and “temp-stow” it onto Canadarm2’s Dextre Special Purpose Dextrous Manipulator (SPDM), to await installation onto Harmony’s forward port during a combined EVA/robotics operation in April. IDA-2 will be positioned between 10 inches (25 cm) and two feet (60 cm) from the forward end of PMA-2 at the front end of Harmony, whereupon spacewalkers will maneuver it into position, closing external connectors, internal switches, and driven hook-motors. Current plans call for two U.S. EVAs in April.
The sheer number of launches promises to make March one of the busiest months in history for the ISS, with the OA-6 Cygnus, Soyuz TMA-20M, the CRS-8 Dragon, and Russia’s Progress MS-2 due to launch, to say nothing of the departure of Progress M-29M from the station in the same period. Assuming the successful arrival of IDA-2, April will feature the two U.S. EVAs, whilst May-June should see the launch of Orbital ATK’s Antares—returning to flight for the first time since the ORB-3 failure and flying in its upgraded “230” configuration, with a first stage powered by Russian-built RD-181 engines—to deliver the OA-5 Cygnus to the station. With a projected launch on 31 May and an anticipated unberthing on 2 August, the 63-day OA-5 promises to be the longest Cygnus mission to date.
A month later than originally planned, Kopra, Malenchenko, and Peake will board their Soyuz TMA-19M spacecraft on 5 June and return to Earth, closing out an increment which will have run for 173 days. In doing so, it will have pushed Malenchenko up the experience table from his current position as the world’s sixth most seasoned spacefarer into third (or even second) place. An on-time landing should leave Malenchenko with a career total across his six missions of 804 days, which might just push Sergei Krikalev—who totaled 803 days across six flights—down from second place into third. However, Malenchenko will sit well behind world record-holder Gennadi Padalka, who has accrued 878 days.
Before departing for home, Kopra will hand over the station to Jeff Williams, who will command Expedition 48 through September 2016, marking the first time that the ISS has been helmed by Americans for a continuous 12-month period. Asked about this arrangement, Mr. Navias told AmericaSpace that there is “nothing unique” about it and noted that “Kelly and Kopra will have had three consecutive runs of three increments.” He also added that the decision was made by the Multilateral Crew Operations Panel (MCOP).
Two weeks later, on 21 June, the first Soyuz-MS will launch with its crew of Anatoli Ivanishin, Kate Rubins, and Takuya Onishi, bringing Expedition 48 up to six-person strength through the remainder of the summer. By the time of their arrival, SpaceX’s CRS-10 Dragon should also have arrived, carrying the Department of Defense (DoD) Space Test Program (STP)-H5, which will host the Lightning Imaging Sensor (LIS) for 24-hour global lightning measurements. It will be robotically installed in a nadir-facing position on ExPRESS Logistics Carrier (ELC)-1 on the P-3 truss, remaining operational for about two years. Other CRS-10 payloads include the Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment (SAGE)-III—equipped with Instrument Payload (IP) and Nadir-Viewing Platform (NVP)—which will be robotically installed onto ELC-4 on the S-3 truss, thereby providing a continuous and unobstructed view of Earth’s atmospheric limb as it seeks to undertake long-term measurements of ozone, aerosols, water vapor, and associated gases.
The summer of Expedition 48 promises to be a busy one, with the launch and departure of Russian Progresses, as well as the unberthing of the CRS-10 Dragon and the arrival of the CRS-11 Dragon in mid-August. The latter will deliver the Roll-Out Solar Array (ROSA), which will trial a roll-open solar panel which offers greater compactness than current rigid-panel designs. It will be temporarily stowed on an ELC worksite, ahead of robotic relocation to its deployment position. Other CRS-10 payloads include the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) for X-ray spectrometry of neutron star emissions and the Multiple-User System for Earth Sensing Facility (MUSES), a
commercial imaging platform to house high-resolution digital cameras, hyperspectral imagers and other instruments to examine the Home Planet.
The Expedition 48 crew are scheduled to return to Earth aboard Soyuz TMA-20M on 7 September, wrapping up a 172-day increment and positioning Jeff Williams about 14 days ahead of Scott Kelly as the most experienced U.S. astronaut, with a cumulative 534 days across his four career space missions. Command of the ISS will then pass to a Russian cosmonaut—for the first time in a year—as Anatoli Ivanishin leads Expedition 49 until his own crew’s departure on 30 October. They will be joined by Russian cosmonauts Sergei Ryzhikov and Andrei Borisenko, together with NASA’s Shane Kimbrough, who are due to launch aboard Soyuz MS-2 on 23/24 September.
During October, another U.S. spacewalk (U.S. EVA-38) is planned, although no details have yet been established. However, Novosti has noted that the relocation of PMA-3 from its current perch on the Tranquility node to its Commercial Crew location at Harmony’s zenith port is anticipated in the fall of 2016, raising the likelihood that U.S. EVA-38 will be devoted to this operation. The PMA-3 relocation was originally scheduled for the fall of 2015, but was postponed following the loss of IDA-1. Russian cosmonauts are also expected to perform three EVAs from the Russian Orbital Segment (ROS) during the course of 2016, with Expedition 47’s Malenchenko and Volkov scheduled to venture outside the station on 3 February and a further two spacewalks planned in August.
The year is expected to close out with the arrival of Soyuz MS-3 on 16 November, carrying Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitsky, NASA’s Peggy Whitson, and French astronaut Thomas Pesquet. With Shane Kimbrough in command, this will complete Expedition 50—the 50th overall increment in ISS history, since the arrival of Bill Shepherd’s Expedition 1 crew, way back in November 2000—and set the stage for an ambitious 2017 and the inaugural Commercial Crew launches.
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