Tag: ISS

Astronaut opens up the window to see the Moon rise

By Phil Plait | June 1, 2012 1:48 pm

Seriously, who knew the International Space Station had windows that could open?

That lovely time lapse video shows the Moon rising over the Earth’s limb. Then, halfway through, the protective covers on the cupola windows get opened, and you can see astronaut Don Petit’s smiling face in there!

You can see Don putting on sunglasses as the sunlight hits the dome. This threw me for a second, actually. If the nearly full Moon is rising, that means the Sun should be setting; they’re on opposite sides of the sky. So why is the cupola suddenly thrown into light?

I’m pretty sure it’s because the Sun was up the whole time, but some part of the ISS was blocking it at first. As the ISS orbits the Earth the Sun’s position in the sky moves, so as the Sun was setting it got out from behind what was blocking it and threw the cupola into sunlight. I imagine a minute or two after the events in this video ended, the Sun sank beneath the curve of the Earth, not to rise again… for another 45 minutes.

Image credit: NASA


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, NASA, Pretty pictures, Space
MORE ABOUT: Don Petit, ISS, Moon

History is made as Dragon splashes down safely in the Pacific!

By Phil Plait | May 31, 2012 10:40 am

At 15:42 UTC on May 31, 2012, the SpaceX Dragon capsule came home, splashing down in the Pacific ocean about 800 km (500 miles) southwest of Los Angeles. As I write this, it’s floating in the water and will be picked up via barge in a little while. There’s still much to do, but it’s not too early to declare this mission a big success.

[Artwork courtesy SpaceX]

The splashdown reminded me strongly of the Apollo homecomings. There was live video as the capsule came down, taken in the infrared by chase planes. The three main parachutes could be seen, brightly and broadly striped, just like Apollo’s. And we haven’t seen an ocean splashdown of an American spacecraft since the 1970s!

[UPDATE (19:10 UTC): Battered and a bit burned from re-entry, here’s the first picture of Dragon as it floats in the Pacific Ocean waiting to be picked up:

Cooool. Image credit: SpaceX.]

The entire mission lasted about 9 days 8 hours. After launching at 07:44 UTC on May 22, things went nearly flawlessly. The only glitch I can recall is when Dragon was approaching the International Space Station, and the LIDAR — a laser guidance system used during docking — was having a hard time locking onto the docking port. A quick software change fixed that, and Dragon docked with ISS around 14:30 UTC May 25. The astronauts on ISS got busy opening the hatch and unloading the supplies carried from Earth, and reloaded it with waste and equipment to go back — over half a ton of cargo, more than it brought up!

The capsule was undocked during the middle of the night US time on May 31, then pulled away from the ISS by the robotic Canadarm. It backed away from ISS, then burned its rocket motors to change its velocity by about 100 meters/second (roughly 200 mph). This changed the shape of the orbit, dropping the lower part into the Earth’s atmosphere. Before it re-entered, it jettisoned the lower half of the capsule (called the trunk) that had the solar panels attached; that burned up over the Pacific.

A few minutes later, the pressure increased enough to slow Dragon. Once it slowed enough, the parachutes deployed successfully, and it splashed down. For those keeping track at home, the touch-down point was 26.92˚ N by -120.70˚ W.

Why was this mission so important? Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Space
MORE ABOUT: Dragon capsule, ISS, SpaceX

Timeline for the fall of the Dragon

By Phil Plait | May 30, 2012 2:06 pm

Tomorrow morning, Thursday May 31, the SpaceX Dragon capsule will undock from the International Space Station, perform a series of maneuvers, and then come back home to Earth. Over at The Planetary Society Blog, Jason Davis has a great writeup giving the times of the key events.

The preliminary stuff happens in the middle of the night for me in Colorado, but the actual descent to Earth happens at a much more palatable time. At 14:51 UTC (10:51 a.m. Eastern US time) the Dragon will begin the deorbit burn, dropping it lower in orbit. Less than an hour later, at 15:44 UTC it is scheduled to splash down in the Pacific ocean about 900 km (540 miles) off the coast of Los Angeles in California.

This will all be covered by various live webstreams, including NASA TV. I’ll be on Twitter as early as I can and I’ll update this post with more video streams as I hear of them.


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Space
MORE ABOUT: Dragon capsule, ISS, SpaceX

Dragon hunting above, dragon hunting below

By Phil Plait | May 27, 2012 7:10 am

On May 23 — the day after the SpaceX Dragon capsule launch — International Space Station astronaut André Kuipers snapped this shot of the Earth:

[Click to ensmaugenate.]

André — who’s Dutch — put this up with the caption "Er zit een draak achter ons aan!" — "There’s a dragon after us!". That’s a funny pun, given the name of the capsule that was already on its way there.

But he didn’t say what this feature was! I wanted to find out, and wound up with a fun story.

Because I was curious, I first read the comments on the Flickr page for this picture. Flickr use PC101 said it was Lake Puarun in Peru seen at an oblique angle. I looked on Google maps, and there’s a decent resemblance. But it didn’t sit right with me. I couldn’t get enough landmarks to match up between the two photos, so I investigated a bit more.

Looking at the picture header, it says the photo was taken at 05:58 UTC on May 23, 2012. Wolfram Alpha shows that’s when ISS was over Australia, way too far around the Earth to see Peru. And the landscape around the lake is red, as you might expect from western Australia…

So I went back to Google maps, looked over Australia, and within about a minute found a suspicious-looking dry lake bed called Lake Rason. I zoomed in, and, well, here be dragon!

[Click to komodenate.]

I rotated this screenshot to more or less match the orientation of the one from the ISS, and clearly this is it. Funny, too: the "tail" is even longer than in the ISS picture, making it look even more like a serpent!

Now think about that. All I had to go on was a picture taken on board the space station and the time it was taken. I didn’t know what direction André took the shot, what magnification he used, or anything like that. All I had was the time he took the picture, and access to the internet… and a bit of experience knowing where to go to get more information.

And within a minute I had my answer! I could see plainly where and what this was. Interestingly, if the timing in the header is accurate and it was exactly 05:58 UTC, then the ISS was nearly directly over the lake when this picture was taken! You can see that for yourself: click here to see the map of the area where I’ve added an arrow to mark the position of the ISS at the time. The lake is in the middle, and looks upside-down.

Keep in mind, the ISS is screaming around the planet at 8 km/sec, so being off by a minute can mean a different of 500 kilometers. Incredible.

So there you go. Seek and ye shall find! And nicely, the Dragon spacecraft found the ISS just a day later, and made history. André has lots of pictures of that as well, which you can find on his Flickr page. Go check ‘em out… and if you find something you don’t understand, why, now you know what to do.

Image credit: ESA/NASA; Google Maps


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When a Dragon mated the space station

By Phil Plait | May 25, 2012 10:08 am

At 16:02 UTC, Friday, May 25, 2012, the SpaceX Dragon officially became the first privately-owned commercial spacecraft to be captured by and berthed at the International Space Station. It is (if I’ve done the math correctly) the 114th spacecraft to dock with ISS, including the missions sent up to build the station. It is the first privately-owned commercial spacecraft in history to do so.

You can read more about this in my last post, which also has a few pictures from the approach and capture.

Congratulations to NASA and the team at SpaceX! Fantastic.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Space
MORE ABOUT: Dragon capsule, ISS, SpaceX

Dragon is approaching the space station – UPDATED: CAPTURED!

By Phil Plait | May 25, 2012 7:13 am

[UPDATE: ISS has captured the Dragon!

That’s not a sim! That’s the Dragon capsule held by the ISS robot arm, 30 minutes after capture. See the notes below.]


The SpaceX Dragon capsule is currently on approach to the International Space Station. As I write this (13:00 UTC) it is about 50 meters away and moving in. NASA has a live feed that I am embedding here:

You may need to refresh this page to see it.

Dragon had approached to 30 meters, but a glitch made NASA ask for it to back off to 70 meters. Dragon uses a laser ranging device called LIDAR to determine its position and velocity relative to ISS. It was getting a stray reflection from a structure on ISS that was giving it bad data. The problem was quickly fixed by narrowing he LIDAR’s field of view, excluding the stray reflection. Clever.

Dragon and ISS need to be in daylight for the astronauts to be able to grapple the capsule with the robot arm. That time is currently scheduled for 14:40 UTC (10:40 a.m. Eastern US time).

I will update this post as new info comes in.

[UPDATE 1 (13:22 UTC): Here’s a frame grab of the Dragon as it holds 30 meters from ISS. The shadow of one of the station’s solar panels is across the capsule. Lovely!]

[UPDATE 2 13:30 UTC): Another pretty shot of the Dragon capsule, this time with part of the station as well. This is a screen grab of the live NASA video stream from 14:30 UTC. Dragon is moving from 30 meters to 10 meters from ISS, where it will once again hold. At that distance, the robot arm will be able to grapple the capsule. It should reach that point around 13:55 UTC.]

[UPDATE 3 (14:38 UTC): NASA expects Dragon will reach 10 meter hold position at 13:45. The first opportunity to grapple it with the robot arm is at 14:02 UTC, which is when the pair will be in the dark. A second opportunity is at 14:28 when they are in daylight once again.]

[UPDATE 4 (13:50 UTC): We are GO for capture! Dragon is 10 meters from ISS, and they will use the robot arm in a few minutes to grapple the capsule. This shot grabbed from the live feed shows Dragon as it holds position off the ISS.]

[UPDATE 5 (13:58 UTC): CAPTURE! At 13:56 UTC history was made as the Canadian robot arm of the International Space Space grappled the SpaceX Dragon capsule, making it the first privately-owned commercial spacecraft to connect with ISS. Congrats to NASA and SpaceX for this wonderful moment. Next step: bring it in and mate it to the docking berth on the Harmony node of ISS.]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Space
MORE ABOUT: Dragon capsule, ISS, SpaceX

Update: the Dragon capsule as seen by the ISS

By Phil Plait | May 24, 2012 4:49 pm

Just a quick update: a new series of pictures of the Dragon capsule as seen by astronauts aboard the International Space Station has just been released, and they’re way cool. Here’s one:

[Click to embiggen.]

Earlier today, Dragon passed just 2.4 kilometers (1.5 miles) from the station, performing a series of tasks to make sure it was ready to dock with ISS tomorrow. I’m sure the folks at SpaceX are poring over these images to make sure their capsule’s OK. And of course, tomorrow we’ll get even more dramatic images and video!

Image credit: NASA

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures
MORE ABOUT: Dragon capsule, ISS, SpaceX

SpaceX Dragon capsule buzzed the space station

By Phil Plait | May 24, 2012 10:43 am

Early this morning, the SpaceX Dragon capsule passed just 2.4 kilometers below the International Space Station, completing another critical step in its mission profile that’ll lead to it docking with the orbiting station Friday morning.

From the station, astronauts captured video as the capsule cruised by:

[You may need to refresh this page to see the video load.]

Very, very cool. You can see the Dragon capsule in this video frame grab: it’s in the lower left corner, silhouetted against the Earth. The extended solar panels are obvious, and you can just make out the shape of the capsule itself.

This flyby was an important milestone, since it showed that the capsule could approach the station and also abort the approach if needed. Other key elements it demonstrated were that it could float freely (as it will have to when it docks with ISS), that its proximity sensors worked, and that its GPS was operational as well. Astronauts on the ISS were also able to command a strobe light remotely, confirming they could link to the capsule.

All this leads up to the big show on Friday: docking. At about 09:00 UTC (05:00 Eastern US time), NASA will decide if the capsule is ready to approach. If so, over the course of an hour or two it will come with 250 meters of the station. It will then perform some last maneuvers to prove it’s ready to go, and then it will make its final approach.

Then, around 13:00 UTC, it will come within just a few meters of ISS, and astronauts on board will grab it with the robotic arm, bringing it in to mate. After that, there will be quite a few checks done which will take some time, leading up to the hatch being opened Saturday morning, scheduled to happen around 11:00 UTC.

All the fun stuff so far has been happening in the middle of the night for me in Boulder, but the approach tomorrow morning isn’t too bad. I’ll get up a little early to watch it live (06:00? We’ll see). I’ll live-tweet the events as they happen.

This is all very exciting! The capsule has been performing essentially flawlessly since launch, so I have high hopes for the next few days.

Image credit: NASA


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Space
MORE ABOUT: Dragon capsule, ISS, SpaceX

SpaceX Dragon on its way to the ISS!

By Phil Plait | May 22, 2012 11:19 am

At 07:44 UTC, May 22, 2012, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket thundered into space, carrying the Dragon capsule into orbit.

So first, holy wow, and yay! That’s fantastic news! This was the second attempt, after a glitchy valve caused a launch abort a few days ago.

This morning’s launch went very smoothly. After achieving orbit, the uncrewed Dragon craft decoupled from the rocket and successfully deployed its solar panels, a key milestone in the mission. When that happened, the cheering from the SpaceX team could be heard in the webcast background, which was delightful. A lot of people on Twitter commented on how NASA’s narration of the event was very stoic and calm, but the SpaceX webcast was very emotional and involved*. I think both of those are as they should be!

Here’s a short video of the launch:

The entire SpaceX webcast is also online. The key moments are the launch at 44:30 into the video, main engine cutoff and start of the second stage at 47:30, the rocket achieving orbit and Dragon capsule separation at 54:00, and then the solar arrays deploying at 56:20.

Seriously, watch that video at the 56:20 mark. When the arrays deploy, you can hear a huge cheer from the SpaceX employees watching. That was awesome. The SpaceX announcer at deployment made me smile. You can really hear the wonder and excitement in her voice.

So why was this launch important? SpaceX is the first entirely private company to attempt to dock a capsule with the International Space Station. If this mission is a success, it’s a big step toward private companies being able to do resupply missions to ISS, including bringing astronauts to and from orbit (which SpaceX plans to be able to do by 2015). And perhaps most importantly, in the long run it means lowering the cost of putting materials in orbit, and that is absolutely critical in creating a permanent human presence in space.

This launch today is just the start of the mission. On Friday, May 25, the Dragon will undergo a series of maneuvers near and around ISS to show that it can be controlled well enough to dock. If that shakes out, then it will approach the station and an astronaut on board ISS will grab it with the robotic arm, bringing it in to mate. There are supplies on the capsule, including a dozen or so student science experiments to be performed. Finally, after over a week in space, it will undock and return to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific ocean off the coast of California.

We’ve all been waiting a long, long time for this, so my honest and hearty congratulations to the crew at SpaceX and at NASA!

We live in the future, folks.

Image credit: SpaceX


* I also couldn’t help but notice they use the metric system! Hey NASA, ahem.


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MORE ABOUT: Dragon capsule, ISS, SpaceX

Psychedelic space station stars and cities

By Phil Plait | May 14, 2012 11:01 am

The view from the International Space Station is always pretty cool, but when an astronaut points the camera at the Earth’s horizon and takes a series of short exposures, adding them together gives a view right out of Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s:

[Click to psilocybinate.]

Whoa, man!

Astronaut Don Petit took the pictures to make this composite. Basically, it’s a series of eighteen 30-second exposures added together so the motion of the ISS around the Earth makes the stars trail, the cities blur, and your mind expand, dude.

The brown and green glow over the horizon is the atmospheric aerosol layer; molecules that absorb sunlight during the day and release that energy at night. The red glow above that puzzles me; I’ve written about it before. It might be a reflection of lights from inside the space station, but I suspect it’s actually the aurora; it follows the curve of the Earth, and as you can see from the star trails the camera was pointed toward the poles — the direction you’re likely to see an aurora.

You can see faint star trails above the bright ones too, with a different center of curvature — those probably are from an internal reflection. Either that or the camera got moved, but that seems unlikely! Several people pointed out to me that the fainter trails above the stars are from the solar panels. I should’ve realized that myself!

This picture is one of several posted to Flickr, including this one which looks like it’s from the last scene of "2001: A Space Odyssey". But they’re all worth looking at, if only for their alien beauty.

After all, the photographer was literally high when he took them!

Image credit: NASA


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