Cargo ships, expandables and spacewalks, oh my: ISS in 2016
Between cargo ships servicing the outpost and spacewalks to maintain it, 2016 was arguably one of the busiest years for the International Space Station (ISS) since the end of the Space Shuttle era.
Probably the most visible event for the space station in 2016 was the yearlong crew – NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko – returning to Earth. They had launched to the outpost on March 27, 2015.
Eleven months later, the duo, along with Sergey Volkov, who launched to the orbiting lab on a six-month mission, landed on March 2, 2016, on the Steppe of Kazakhstan in Soyuz TMA-18M spacecraft.
Over the course of their stay, they circled Earth over 5,440 times and traveled more than 143 million miles (230 million kilometers). Additionally, nearly 400 experiments were performed in areas ranging from life sciences, robotics, biology, and more.
“Scott Kelly’s one-year mission aboard the International Space Station has helped to advance deep space exploration and America’s Journey to Mars,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement after Kelly landed. “Scott has become the first American astronaut to spend a year in space, and in so doing, helped us take one giant leap toward putting boots on Mars.”
Among the experiments conducted during Kelly tenure aboard ISS was the Twins Study, 10 investigations conducted with Kelly and his twin brother Mark, who is a retired Space Shuttle commander.
The goal of the study, according to NASA, which is ongoing even after Kelly landed, was to gain insight on the subtle effects and changes that might occur during a spaceflight by comparing two individuals with the same genetics but in different environments for one year.
According to Ars Technica, NASA plans five more one-year missions with a similar setup to Kelly and Kornienko’s flight before the end of space station operations.
A total of 12 spacecraft launched toward the ISS: four Russian cargo crafts (one of which failed to reach orbit), two SpaceX Dragon capsules, two Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft, one Japanese Kounotori, and four crewed Soyuz.
While overall visiting vehicle traffic wasn’t the highest in station history, 2016 did see only the second time six spacecraft were docked or berthed to the outpost. Between April 10 and May 11, both commercial cargo vessels, Dragon and Cygnus, were attached to the ISS on the U.S. side while all four ports on the Russian segment (two Soyuz and two Progress) were occupied.
On the crewed spaceflight side of visiting spacecraft, four Soyuz spacecraft brought up a total of 12 additional crew members. Soyuz TMA-20M launched Russian cosmonauts Aleksey Ovchinin and Oleg Skripochka, and NASA astronaut Jeff Williams on March 18, 2016, to replace the recently landed crew of TMA-18M.
They remained docked for about 171 days before returning to Earth on Sept. 7, 2016. In that time, Williams overtook Kelly as the American with the most cumulative time spent in space: 534 days, 2 hours and 48 minutes.
On July 7, 2016, Russian cosmonaut Anatoli Ivanishin, Japanese astronaut Takuya Onishi, and NASA astronaut Kate Williams launched to the ISS in Soyuz MS-01, the first of the upgraded MS-series Soyuz spacecraft.
They replaced Soyuz TMA-19M crew members Yuri Malenchenko, a Russian cosmonaut; Tim Peake, a British astronaut; and Tim Kopra, a NASA astronaut, who launched to the outpost on Dec. 15, 2015.
Currently aboard the ISS are members of Expedition 50. Russian cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Andrei Borisenko, along with NASA’s Shane Kimbrough, launched in Soyuz MS-02 on Oct. 19, 2016, to replace the Soyuz recently landed crew of Soyuz TMA-20M.
Joining them on Nov. 17, 2016, was the Soyuz MS-03 crew consisting of Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy, French astronaut Thomas Pesquet, and NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, which replaced the Soyuz MS-01 crew.
It is important to note that Expedition 50 will be the last six-person expedition for at least a year. Roscosmos announced that it would be reducing its crew size from three cosmonauts to two in 2017 in a bid to reduce the number of Progress cargo launches from four a year to three.
This is expected to save money to allow for the country’s Nauka science module to launch. Currently, that module is expected to launch in November 2017.
New space station pieces
In addition to the four crewed vehicles, a number of cargo ships made headlines during 2016.
Using its unpressurized Trunk, SpaceX’s CRS-8 Dragon capsule brought up two additions to the space station. In April, it delivered the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, better known as BEAM. It was attached to the aft port of the Tranquility module and expanded in May.
BEAM was the first human-rated expandable module to be flown into space. It was developed under a $17.8 million contract signed by NASA and Bigelow Aerospace in 2012. The goal was to understand how expandable modules expand and how well they shield from radiation.
The module has a number of sensors inside, including thermal sensors, active and passive dosimeters to measure cosmic radiation, and sensors that measure impacts on the module’s exterior by space debris.
BEAM is expected to stay attached to the outpost into 2018 before it is detached and allowed to re-enter and burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.
During CRS-9, SpaceX’s Dragon capsule also brought up the International Docking Adapter 2 (IDA-2). During a spacewalk on Aug 19, astronauts Jeff Williams and Kate Rubins installed the docking ring to the forward side of the Pressurized Mating Adapter 2, which was where the Space Shuttle used to dock.
This new adapter will allow commercial spacecraft, such as SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, dock with the outpost.
“It is amazing that now we’ve opened up a new chapter in the story of the International Space Station, putting the front door on this for future commercial vehicles,” Williams said not long after official confirmation of IDA-2 mating had occurred. “Congratulations to the entire team.”
A second adaptor, IDA-3, will be launched to the ISS by another SpaceX Dragon capsule, likely CRS-16.
IDA-1 was aboard the CRS-7 Dragon capsule when it launched toward space in June 2015. However, a failure some two minutes into flight caused the loss of the adapter and the Falcon 9 rocket that was carrying it.
Saffire in space
Orbital ATK’s Cygnus spacecraft, two of which were launched, not only brought up much-needed cargo but also it included some fiery experiments.
NASA’s Spacecraft Fire Experiment, called Saffire, are the largest flame experiments ever sent into space. In fact, the study was conducted remotely, safely away from the outpost aboard two Cygnus cargo ships after the spacecraft had finished its delivery mission.
Safire-I was sent up with the OA-6 Cygnus and consisted of a single cotton-fiberglass material card that had a dimension of about 1 foot by 3 feet (30 centimeters by 91 centimeters). It was ignited in June 2016 by a hot wire and observed via cameras and sensors.
After the experiment concluded and all the data was downlinked to Earth, the cargo ship was commanded to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere over the southern Pacific Ocean.
A second experiment, Saffire-II, was sent into orbit aboard the OA-5 Cygnus in October. In November, at the end of its mission and away from the outpost, it too was performed. However, instead of a single material, there were nine different materials.
At least one more Saffire experiment will fly in 2017 with the potential for three more experiments in the series.
The final cargo ship to make headlines in 2016 was the ill-fated Progress MS-04. While three Progress spacecraft successfully made it to the outpost and carried out their missions flawlessly, this one was not as lucky.
On Dec. 1, 2016, a Soyuz-U carrier rocket failed about 382 seconds into flight when the third stage cut out early. The spacecraft was carrying 1,400 pounds (635 kilograms) of propellant for the outpost, 925 pounds (420 kilograms) of water, and 112 pounds (51 kilograms) of oxygen for the crew, as well as food, clothing, and experiments. The total loss was 2.36 metric tons of supplies.
This was only the third Progress in the history of the spacecraft to fail. All three occurred in the last five years.
The crew was in no danger and there were plenty of supplies aboard the outpost to cushion the impact of this loss. However, another cargo ship launched just over a week later to help alleviate any potential supply shortages.
Spacewalks in 2016
On Dec. 13, 2016, about five days after launching from the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan, the Japanese Kounotori 6 spacecraft arrived at the ISS. It brought with it 4.5 metric tons of supplies, including six new lithium ion batteries. Those batteries will be installed via two spacewalks in early January 2017.
In 2016, four spacewalks took place. The first one, EVA-35, occurred Jan. 15, 2016 and saw Peake and Kopra replace of a failed Shunt unit and continue installation of IDA power and data cables. However, that spacewalk was ended early due to water accumulating in Peaks helmet.
Less than a month later, on Feb. 3, 2016, the only Russian spacewalk of 2016 occurred. Malenchenko and Volkov left the airlock on the Pirs module. During the nearly five-hour spacewalk, the duo retrieved and deployed several experiments on the exterior of Zvezda and Poisk modules and installed gap spanners before releasing a ceremonial flash drive in a canister to burn up in the atmosphere.
That flash drive included messages from the 70th anniversary of Russia’s Victory Day. It was thrown retrograde from the outpost to ensure it would not collide with the space station in future orbits before burning up.
The final two EVA’s were conducted by Rubins and Williams on Aug. 19 and Sept. 1 respectively. EVA-36, detailed above, was done to install IDA-2. The second, EVA-37, was done to retract a thermal radiator on the port side of the Integrated Truss Assembly.
Additionally, the duo installed high-definition video cameras on the exterior of the outpost as well as tightened and inspected bolts on the port-side Solar Alpha Rotary Joint.
Video courtesy of NASA Johnson
Derek Richardson is a student studying mass media with an emphasis in contemporary journalism at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. He is currently the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also writes a blog, called Orbital Velocity, about the space station. His passion for space ignited when he watched space shuttle Discovery leap to space on Oct. 29, 1998. He saw his first in-person launch on July 8, 2011 when the space shuttle launched for the final time. Today, this fervor has accelerated toward orbit and shows no signs of slowing down. After dabbling in math and engineering courses in college, he soon realized that his true calling was communicating to others about space exploration and spreading that passion.