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NASA astronaut to stay on ISS for nearly a year



WASHINGTON — NASA confirmed Sept. 14 that one its astronauts, Mark Vande Hei, will remain on the International Space Station until next March, setting an American spaceflight duration record in the process.

The agency announced that Vande Hei, along with Russian cosmonaut Pyotr Dubrov, had their six-month stays on the station extended by another six months. The two launched to the station on the Soyuz MS-18 spacecraft April 9 along with Oleg Novitskiy.

Ordinarily, the three would have returned together on that spacecraft in October after the launch of a replacement crew on Soyuz MS-19. However, Roscosmos announced earlier this year plans to send director Klim Shipenko and actress Yulia Peresild to the station on that spacecraft, along with cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov.

Shipenko and Peresild will spend nearly two weeks on the station, filming scenes for a movie, before returning on Soyuz MS-18 with Novitskiy. Shkaplerov will remain on the station for a six-month stay, along with the extended missions of Vande Hei and Dubrov.

According to NASA, Vande Hei and Dubrov would return, with Shkaplerov, in March 2022. While NASA did not give an exact return date, Vande Hei tweeted that he expected to spend approximately 353 days in space. The would break the record for the longest spaceflight by an American astronaut: 340 days, set by Scott Kelly on his “one-year” mission to the ISS in 2015–16.

An extended stay, Vande Hei wrote, was “a possibility that I was prepared for from the beginning. The opportunity to experience this with wonderful crewmates while contributing to science and future exploration is exciting!”

Even before the launch, Vande Hei said he was aware of Russian plans to film a movie on the station in October, taking seats that would have been used for him to return home after six months. “Honestly, for me it’s just an opportunity for a new life experience. I’ve never been in space longer than six months,” he said in a preflight briefing in March.

Nelson, in his own tweet, offered his appreciation to Vande Hei. “Thank you, Mark, for your dedication to @NASA and research that will prepare humanity for Artemis missions to the Moon and later to Mars!”

The extended stay may give Vande Hei a second chance to perform a spacewalk. He was scheduled to accompany Aki Hoshide on a spacewalk last month to install equipment needed for future solar panel upgrades. However, NASA postponed it because of what it called “a minor medical issue” involving Vande Hei. The agency didn’t elaborate, but Vande Hei later tweeted that he had a pinched nerve in his neck. That spacewalk took place Sept. 12 with Thomas Pesquet taking Vande Hei’s place.

Vande Hei’s longer stay on the station also gives NASA more time to work out a long-term solution for access to Soyuz seats. NASA used a third party, Axiom Space, to acquire the seat for Vande Hei rather than purchasing it directly. Axiom Space bought the seat from Roscosmos and then transferred it to NASA in exchange for a seat on a future commercial crew mission.

NASA has been working with Roscosmos to reach an agreement to exchange seats directly, with Russian cosmonauts flying on commercial crew vehicles in exchange for NASA or other partner astronauts flying on Soyuz. Those discussions are still in progress.

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Russia launches supply ship on two-day trip to space station



A Soyuz rocket lifts off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome with the Progress MS-18 supply ship. Credit: Roscosmos

A Russian Progress cargo freighter loaded with more than 5,000 pounds of crew supplies, fuel, water, and air lifted off Wednesday from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and rode a Soyuz launcher into orbit, the first leg of a two-day trip to the International Space Station.

The unpiloted Progress MS-18 cargo ship launched at 8:00:32 p.m. EDT Wednesday (0000:32 GMT Thursday) from Baikonur, the historic launch base leased from Kazakhstan by the Russian government.

A Soyuz-2.1a rocket ignited its kerosene-fueled engines and climbed away from the Site 31 launch complex, heading northeast to line up with the space station’s orbital corridor.

The rocket jettisoned its four strap-on boosters two minutes into the flight, then released its nose shroud. The Soyuz core stage shut down and separated nearly five minutes after liftoff, leaving the rocket’s third stage RD-0110 engine to finish the job of injecting the Progress MS-18 supply ship into orbit shy shy of the mission’s nine-minute mark.

Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, confirmed the cargo freighter reached orbit and unfurled its power-generating solar panels to power its journey to the space station.

Burns using the 23.6-foot-long (7.2-meter) spacecraft’s small rocket thrusters will allow the Progress to match the orbit of the space station, setting up for a radar-guided rendezvous and docking with the Russian segment’s Zvezda service module at 9:34 p.m. EDT Friday (0134 GMT Saturday).

The Progress spacecraft is taking a two-day flight to the space station, and not the usual three- or six-hour trip, because the orbiting complex was not in the right position relative to the Baikonur launch base to make the fast-track rendezvous possible for Wednesday’s launch opportunity.

Launching a crew or cargo mission on a quick rendezvous to the station requires the outpost to be nearly directly overhead the launch pad when a rocket takes off.

The Progress MS-18 spacecraft will link up with the rear docking port on Zvezda. With the help of cosmonauts on the station, Russian engineers have traced a small air leak on the station to the transfer compartment leading to Zvezda’s rear port.

The compartment has been sealed from the rest of the space station since the departure of a previous Progress spacecraft from the rear docking port in April. But cosmonauts will re-open the compartment to unload cargo delivered by the Progress MS-18 spacecraft.

The mission is the 79th Russian Progress supply craft to launch toward the International Space Station since 2000.

Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, said the Progress MS-18 spacecraft will deliver around 5,377 pounds (2,439 kilograms) of supplies to the station.

Russian ground teams loaded 3,327 pounds (1,509 kilograms) of dry cargo into the Progress freighter’s pressurized compartment, according to Roscosmos. The space agency said the mission carries 1,036 pounds (470 kilograms) of propellant to refuel Zvezda module’s propulsion system, 926 pounds (420 kilograms) of fresh drinking water, and 88 pounds of compressed gas to replenish the space station’s breathing air.

Russia’s Progress MS-18 supply ship inside a processing facility at the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Credit: Roscosmos

The launch of the Progress MS-18 supply ship follows the relocation of the Progress MS-17 cargo craft last week from one space station docking port to another. Progress MS-17 moved to a docking port on Russia’s Nauka lab module, the newest element of the space station, to help perform leak checks of the module’s propulsion system before it is used to control the lab’s orientation, or attitude.

Progress MS-17 will undock from the space station next month to clear the way for arrival of another new Russian module, named Prichal, set for launch from Baikonur on Nov. 24.

Meanwhile, NASA is gearing up to launch four astronauts to the space station Sunday from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The crew will ride a SpaceX Dragon capsule to the station to begin a six-month expedition in orbit, replacing an outgoing team of astronauts scheduled to return to Earth in early November.

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Matthias Maurer talks science and spacewalks on the space station



Matthias Maurer’s last name in German means brick layer. Naturally, Maurer says, that means he has been assigned to perform an experiment with concrete during his six-month stint on the International Space Station.

Maurer, 51, is preparing to launch on SpaceX’s next crew mission to the space station. The European Space Agency astronaut is set to head into orbit for the first time.

The mission will make Maurer the 600th person to fly into space since the dawn of the Space Age. He’s eager to start on his science mission on the space station, where he will operate facilities inside the European Columbus lab module and support research in other segments of the outpost.

Born in the German state of Saarland, Maurer earned degrees in materials technology and materials science. He received a doctorate in materials science engineering from the Technical University of Aachen, Germany, and has a master’s degree in economics for engineers from the Open University in Hagen, Germany.

While completing his studies, Maurer researched high-temperature metals and served as a paramedic. He worked four years for an international medical company, researching new materials for disposable medical equipment, such as blood filters used in dialysis.

In a pre-flight interview with Spaceflight Now, Maurer said his education and research experience have prepared him for work on the space station.

“Some of these topics are actually the research areas that we have on the International Space Station,” he said. “We have a lot of materials science on the space station. We have several furnaces, but we also work in the domain of life sciences. That’s why I think I bring a lot of expert knowledge to run a lot of these experiments that have on the space station.”

Maurer will launch on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Endurance spacecraft on NASA’s Crew-3 mission. NASA astronaut Raja Chari commands the flight. Pilot Tom Marshburn and NASA mission specialist Kayla Barron will also be on-board for the six-month expedition on the space station.

Launch is scheduled for 2:21 a.m. EDT (0621 GMT) Sunday from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer during training at SpaceX. Credit: SpaceX

Maurer’s crewmates describe him as inventive and innovative. He applied to join ESA’s astronaut class of 2009 and passed all tests to join the group, but he did not make the final cut.

Instead, he joined ESA as a crew support engineer at the European Astronaut Center in Cologne, Germany. He participated in an ESA-led cave expedition in 2014, and officially joined ESA’s astronaut corps in 2015.

Before his assignment to the Crew-3 mission, Maurer was part of the first group of foreign astronauts to join a Chinese astronaut training program in 2017. He also took language lessons in Chinese.

After waiting more than a decade since he first applied to be an ESA astronaut, Maurer is days away from finally rocketing into orbit. A world-class science lab awaits him more than 250 miles (400 kilometers) above Earth.

“I like the metals, and melting metals,” Maurer said. “We have the electromagnetic levitating furnace in the European module, where we can heat up metal samples, have them floating — -so no contact with any boundaries where we could have artifacts — and we can heat them up, see the viscosity, measure all the different parameters, and then cool them.

“And all these parameters we only can gain in zero gravity, and then we can feed it into computer simulations which are applicable for applications on the ground when you for example want to produce a new car engine, or the turbine blade for a jet engine on a plane,” Maurer said.

He said the materials science research program on the space station has been “highly successful” with solid demand from investigators to send their experiments to the orbiting lab.

There are also biological experiments probing how the human body changes in microgravity, including the eyes.

“One of the devices that we’re flying now is taking video images of the eye, and applying artificial intelligence for the image analysis,” Maurer said. “Ground testing has proven that with such a quite simple setup, like an iPhone, for example, and a lens that we put on there and the right software, you can achieve almost better results than a specialist …  can do just by looking into your eye.”

Similar technology could be applied to help patients on the ground that don’t have easy access to an eye clinic.

This diagram shows the location of the Nauka laboratory module and the European Robotic Arm at the International Space Station. Credit: ESA

“In German, my last name Maurer means brick layer,” Maurer said. “As a brick layer, you should do something with construction, so I will have an experiment with concrete. We will mix some cement on the space station and see how it hardens.”

Concrete is one of the most common ingredients in construction, but scientists still have questions about how it hardens over time, particularly in the absence of gravity or in a low-gravity environment. A future base on the moon or Mars might use concrete, so scientists want to know how it behaves in space.

“It actually contributes a lot of science,” Maurer said.

Maurer is certified to go outside the space station on spacewalks in either U.S. spacesuits — called Extravehicular Mobility Units — or Russian Orlan spacesuits.

If the crew’s schedule remains unchanged, Maurer will go outside the station in an Orlan spacesuit with a Russian cosmonaut early next year. The duo will activate the European Robotic Arm positioned outside Russia’s Nauka laboratory module, which arrived at the station in July.

“We need to remove the transport fixture and install video cameras, which were not installed during the transport,” Maurer said.

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China launches classified space debris mitigation technology satellite



Shijian-21 lifts off atop a Long March 3B from Xichang Satellite Launch Center, at 9:27 a.m. local time, October 24.

China launched the Shijian-21 satellite from Xichang late Saturday with the stated aim of testing space debris mitigation technologies.


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Arianespace breaks payload mass record on final Ariane 5 launch before Webb



An Ariane 5 rocket lifts off from the Guiana Space Center with the SES 17 and Syracuse 4A communications satellites. Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace/S. Martin

A European Ariane 5 rocket fired into space Saturday night from French Guiana with a commercial broadband satellite for SES and a French military telecom craft, setting a new payload mass record for geostationary transfer orbit on the final Ariane 5 flight before launch of the James Webb Space Telescope in December.

Running a day late after a ground system issue forced a 24-hour delay from Friday, teams pumped cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen into the Ariane 5 launcher’s main stage and upper stage Saturday afternoon on the ELA-3 launch pad at the Guiana Space Center in South America.

The Ariane 5’s countdown stopped five minutes before the rocket’s first launch opportunity Saturday night. After a 67-minute hold to allow engineers to analyze pressure readings in the Ariane 5’s main stage, the countdown resumed and the rocket’s Vulcain 2 main engine flashed to life at 10:10 p.m. EDT (0210 GMT).

Seven seconds later, the Ariane 5’s twin solid rocket boosters ignited to propel the launcher off the pad with 2.9 million pounds of thrust.

The Ariane 5 lifted off at 11:10 p.m. local time in French Guiana, darting though a cloud layer as it accelerated due east from the spaceport on the northern coast of South America.

The rocket jettisoned its two spent solid rocket booster casings nearly two-and-a-half minutes into the mission. The Ariane 5’s  Swiss-made payload shroud released in two halves moments later, once the rocket climbed above the dense, lower layers of the atmosphere.

The main stage continued firing its Vulcain 2 main engine until nearly nine minutes into the flight, before switching off and dropping away to fall back into the atmosphere off the coast of Africa.

An upper stage powered by a hydrogen-fueled HM7B engine ignited for a 16-minute burn to inject the SES 17 and Syracuse 4A satellites into an oval-shaped geostationary transfer orbit stretching nearly 22,000 miles (36,000 kilometers) above the planet.

The Ariane 5 released each satellite right on time, first deploying the SES 17 spacecraft from the upper position on the rocket’s dual-payload stack nearly 30 minutes after liftoff. After casting off an adapter structure, the Ariane 5 deployed Syracuse 4A about nine minutes later.

The SES 17 satellite during integration and testing at Thales Alenia Space’s factory in Cannes, France. Credit: Marie-Ange Sanguy / Thales Alenia Space

Arianespace, the French company that manages Ariane 5 launch operations, declared success on the mission. Designated VA255 in Arianespace’s flight sequence, the launch Saturday night was the 111th flight of an Ariane 5 rocket since 1996, and the 255th mission overall with the Ariane rocket family.

Built Thales Alenia Space, the SES 17 communications satellite will provide internet connectivity to airline passengers over the Americas, the Caribbean, and the Atlantic Ocean for SES of Luxembourg. The fully fueled satellite weighed 14,133 pounds (6,411 kilograms) at launch, according to Arianespace’s launch press kit.

SES 17 is the largest satellite ever procured by SES, and the largest spacecraft ever built by Thales. It carries a new digital payload controller, developed in a public-private partnership with ESA, that is capable of re-programming the satellites’s nearly 200 spot beams, adjusting power and frequency allocations to respond to changing customer needs.

“Thanks to Arianespace, SES-17 is now on its way to orbit,” said Steve Collar, CEO of SES. “We are looking forward to SES customers being able to leverage the high throughput, global reach and low-latency of SES’s multi-orbit, interoperable Ka-band satellite network comprising SES-17 and our upcoming O3b mPOWER constellation.”

The SES 17 satellite also carries a mechanically pumped loop cooling system, the first such active thermal control loop to be used on a large commercial communications spacecraft. Previous commercial telecom satellites used passive thermal control systems, or heat pipes, to keep their internal electronics at proper temperatures.

The 8,492-pound (3,852-kilogram) Syracuse 4A spacecraft, also built by Thales Alenia Space, will provide communications services for the French military. The satellite will relay secure communications between French military aircraft, armored ground vehicles, and naval vessels, including submarines.

The Syracuse 4 program replaces the Syracuse 3 generation, which comprises two French satellites launched in 2005 and 2006, and a joint spacecraft with Italy that went into orbit in 2015. The Syracuse satellites provide relay services for French military forces deployed and on the move in areas outside the each of terrestrial communications.

“All of these activities require constant, reliable communications, and only space telecommunication can provide that,” and Commander Ludovic Esquivié, Syracuse program officer at French Space Command. “Syracuse … is a secure communication system totally controlled by the armed forces, and hardened against external aggressions.”

The French defense ministry announced in 2019 that the new generation of Syracuse satellites would have cameras to help identify and monitor possible attackers. The Syracuse 4 satellites are also resistant to jamming, and provide higher data relay rates and improved flexibility over the aging Syracuse 3 satellites.

“These satellites are exposed to, or must be capable of dealing with, all kinds of threats, including a nuclear threat, but also threats in terms of cyber security or cyber attacks,” said Hervé Derrey, CEO of Thales Alenia Space.

The Syracuse 4A satellite. Credit: DGA

SES 17 and Syracuse 4A will use plasma thrusters over the next few months to circularize their orbits more than 22,000 miles over the equator. Once in geostationary orbit, the satellites will have fixed geographic coverage zones as they more around Earth with the planet’s rotation.

Saturday night’s mission set two records.

The combined launch weight of the SES 17 and Syracuse 4A satellites was 22,626 pounds (10,263 kilograms). The two spacecraft comprised the heaviest payload stack ever to be launched into geostationary transfer orbit, a typical drop-off orbit for large communications satellites.

The Ariane 5 rocket Saturday night flew with a raising cylinder at the base of the payload fairing that increased the launcher’s height by 5 feet (1.5 meters) relative to the standard launcher design. The change gave the rocket a total height of 184 feet (56.3 meters), making it the tallest Ariane 5 to ever fly.

The flight Saturday night helped clear the way for the next Ariane 5 mission to launch the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope.

The Ariane 5 is one of the most reliable launch vehicles in the world, with just one partial failure in its last 97 flights. The European Space Agency is paying for Webb’s launch as part of its contribution to the mission. NASA paid the bulk of Webb’s development costs, and the Canadian Space Agency is the third partner on the observatory.

NASA engineers helped ESA and Arianespace assess the Ariane 5 rocket’s readiness to launch Webb, the most expensive robotic space mission in history. The launch Saturday was the final test before Webb is mounted to the next Ariane 5 for a liftoff scheduled for Dec. 18.

The Launch Services Program at Kennedy Space Center, which provides oversight for launches carrying NASA science missions to space, took on a consulting role for the James Webb Space Space Telescope.

“I think that helps calm some folks’ feelings, or perhaps perceptions, of why in the world are we launching this on a foreign vehicle,” said Omar Baez, a launch director at Kennedy, in a recent interview with Spaceflight Now.

Baez said he took his first trip to the Ariane 5 launch base in Kourou, French Guiana, two decades ago to start evaluating facilities at the spaceport, which is managed by CNES, the French space agency.

“It’s touchy because you’re going up against Arianespace and CNES, and you’re a foreign agent, but we have worked well together,” Baez said.

He said NASA assigned experts in spacecraft processing, mission integration, and risk management as consultants to work with ESA and Arianespace ahead of Webb’s launch.

“Our risk manager has been following how the French and ESA folks bubble up any problems that Arianespace may have, and it’s very similar to the system we have here, with regard to insight and oversight by government agencies,” Baez said. “So we take credit for some of that insight by seeing that they have the same type of rigor that we show when we fly one of our precious payloads.”

“Ariane 5 demonstrates continuous improvement with each launch,” said Daniel Neuenschwander, ESA’s director of space transportation, in a statement after Saturday night’s launch. “The success today of launch VA255 and the success of VA254 last July were crucial to move towards Ariane 5’s December launch carrying the James Webb Space Telescope.”

The James Webb Space Telescope is seen inside the S5C payload processing facility at the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana. Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn

In their analyses to ensure the Ariane 5 is ready to launch Webb, engineers in Europe and the United States have focused on the rocket’s payload fairing, or nose cone, which protects payloads during the first few minutes of flight through the atmosphere. The shroud jettisons in two pieces a few minutes after launch, exposing satellites for separation from the rocket once in orbit.

JWST will fold up origami-style to fit under the Ariane 5 rocket’s payload shroud, then unfurl solar panels, antennas, a segmented mirror array, and a thermal sunshield the size of a tennis court after separating from the Ariane 5 on the way to an observing post nearly a million miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth.

Once in position, JWST’s telescope — the largest ever flown in space — and four science instruments will peer into the distant universe, studying the turbulent aftermath of the Big Bang, the formation of galaxies and the environments of planets around other stars.

The Ariane 5 payload shroud is made by RUAG Space in Switzerland.

Engineers introduced modifications to the Ariane 5’s payload fairing to reduce vibrations imparted on the satellites during separation of the nose cone.

ESA, Arianespace and RUAG also changed the design of vents on the Ariane 5’s payload shroud to address a concern that a depressurization event could damage the Webb observatory when the fairing jettisons after liftoff. Engineers were concerned residual air trapped in Webb’s folded sunshield membranes could cause an “over-stress condition” at the time of fairing separation.

Baez said NASA engineers based at Kennedy Space Center were “very instrumental” in discovering an issue with how the Ariane 5 fairing depressurizes during ascent.

“We were able to, in cooperation with our French partners, instrument the fairing on previous flights that captured that environment and make sure that we had accurate information,” Baez said. “And, in fact, we did find a problem. We had to work on a scheme to be able to vent that fairing properly on its ascent.”

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