The International Space Station is currently home to 6 astronauts: Russians Oleg Kononenko, Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin and Americans Dan Burbank and Don Pettit, together with the European Space Agency’s Dutch astronaut André Kuipers. According to the procedure of changing over the crew half at a time, Shkaplerov, Ivanishin and Burbank who arrived in November 2011 should return to Earth in March 2012. But the next Soyuz spaceship which is to carry their three replacements (Russians Gennady Padalka and Sergei Revin as well as American Joseph Acaba) on 30 March experienced a leak during a pressurisation test. The postponement of the blast-off until the end of the month of April so that the problem can be solved has therefore been evoked. This unexpected event could, as a result, delay the return of Shkaplerov, Ivanishin and Burbank so that the period of time during which the Station has only three residents is kept to a minimum.
Thursday 26 January 2012, a Russian Progress cargo ship (the 46P or M-14M) blasted off, at 05:06 local Baikonur time, from the famous Kazakhstan cosmodrome atop a Soyuz rocket and was successfully placed in orbit ready to join up with the International Space Station. The docking with the orbital complex is scheduled on Saturday 28 January at 00:08 Universal Time. A video showing the launch is below.
The pupils in NASA’s competition winning class from Montana, USA, with their teacher Nina DiMauro. These pupils will be able to choose what pictures should be taken first by the MoonKam that is fitted to each of the two GRAIL mission probes. Credit: DR
Since the beginning of the year, two of NASA’s probes have been orbiting the Moon in order to draw up an accurate map of the variations in its gravitational field. The American Space Agency launched a competition to give each of GRAIL-A and GRAIL-B a name. More than 900 schools representing 11,000 pupils and students took part. The winning class is that of teacher Nina DiMauro at the Emily Dickinson School in Bozeman, Montana. Their proposition? That the probes be named according to one of the biggest influences that our natural satellite has on our Earth, namely the tides. Consequently, GRAIL-A and GRAIL-B are now called Ebb (the receding tide) and Flow (the rising tide).
During a press conference on 9 January, the Director General of the ESA, European Space Agency, Jean-Jacques Dordain said that “2012 is the year of all of the challenges”. It should be highlighted that this year will be a busy one for the Agency with numerous missions scheduled, such as that already begun with its astronaut André Kuipers aboard the International Space Station, the maiden flight of the small launch vehicle Vega from the Guiana Space Centre followed by the blasting off to the Station of the third automatic ATV cargo ship, not forgetting notably the MetOp-B and MSG-3 weather satellites, the Swarm satellite trio which will be studying the Earth’s magnetic field and then the sending of two new satellites up into space for the Galileo European navigation system. This non-exhaustive list shows that the ESA, despite the financial difficulties currently existing in Europe, maintains a constant annual budget (a little less than 4 billion euros). Moreover, Jean-Jacques Dordain see this as a sign showing that “for the Member States [of the ESA], space is a priority” and “that investing in space, is a way of providing for the future”. Pragmatic, he underlined that “industrial space activities are strongly anchored in Europe and not delocalised”, an argument which is directly aimed at political leaders anxious to encourage employment in Europe whereas preparations are already underway for the ESA Council Meeting at Ministerial Level to be held at the end of the year. This will unite ministers from the Agency’s Member States in order to define its programmes and its general policy for the years to come. It will therefore be a key event. Jean-Jacques Dordain also underlined his desire to reduce the operating costs of the International Space Station in agreement with the other partner agencies and his intention of making savings of 175 million euros as regards ESA’s internal costs. It is worthy of note that the Agency is also preparing to welcome Poland as its twentieth Member State. With regard to Ariane 5, the Director General referred to the “end of a cycle” and the need to think about the launch vehicle that Europe will need in the next 10 years.
The ESA video below presents the missions scheduled in 2012.
On 25 January, it will be 8 years since NASA’s rover began surveying the Red Planet. After a long crossing, the spacecraft has reached its new objective, the Endeavour crater. However, the winter season is just beginning and Opportunity has “sought wintering grounds”. Up until now, driving near to the equator in the southern hemisphere, the rover was not really affected by the reduced sunlight of a Martian winter (which is about twice as long as that on Earth as the Red Planet takes 686 days to orbit the Sun). But as its solar array is now covered with dust which diminishes its performance, it has been decided to put the robotic explorer on a slope, angled so as to maximise the rays received from the Sun. On Mars, the winter solstice in the southern hemisphere (which will therefore be the shortest day) is due on 30 March 2012.
Following a malfunction of its own propulsion stage, the Russian probe has been locked in Earth orbit (see this article) and attempts to regain control have unfortunately not been successful. Colonel Alexei Zolotukhin, spokesman for the Russian Space Forces (cited by the RIA-Novosti press agency), said that Phobos-Grunt should re-enter our planet’s atmosphere on 15 January. He also stated that various factors could cause the date, which is only an estimation, to change. The probe was to have landed on Phobos, the bigger of Mars’ two small moons in order to bring a sample back to Earth.
NASA’s two twin GRAIL (Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory) probes went into orbit around the Moon one after another right on schedule. GRAIL-A “set the ball rolling” on 31 December 2011 by momentarily firing a small thruster at 22:21 UT (Universal Time, add an hour for France) so as to voluntarily be “imprisoned” by the lunar gravitational field. The manoeuvre was successfully completed at 23:00. The following day, on 1 January 2012, GRAIL-B carried out the same operation at 23:43. From now on, and during the weeks to come, the two probes which are the size of washing machines will further use their thrusters to adjust their orbit around our natural satellite. The aim is to study the variations in the Moon’s gravitational field so as to get a better understanding of its structure (see this Enjoy Space article).
On Monday 6 August the Mars rover Curiosity should land on the red planet. From today Enjoy Space and Cité de l’Espace are offering you the chance to follow this event on Twitter, and then by video, direct from the NASA JPL in California!
This is the mythical rocket par excellence, the one that launched Sputnik, the first satellite and Gagarin, the first man in space. The CSG, Guiana Space Centre, is now one of its launch bases: a historic achievement.