• Floating ahead…

    Wow, a world record! Congratulations, Samantha! An Italian woman is now the record holder for the “longest female presence in space”! Even longer than any cosmonaut, and the Russians have a history of long space missions! She is also longer than the previous record holder Suni Williams, who has stayed 195 days in space on a single mission… Now Samantha is “one step ahead”!
    Servus Samantha, the comic for you is finished. Credits: DLR

    Servus Samantha, the comic for you is finished. Credits: DLR

    This event was reason enough for our Ground Controller David Hagenstroem to draw a memorable comic. Of course we wanted Samantha to know that we are aware of her new ‘power’ – that is why we wanted to bring her the comic on the Space Station. Should not be a big problem, right? Well, “In principle, no”. But a space station is, even in our times of ubiquitous Internet a special place, for space enthusiasts at least. I still remember when a NASA colleague asked me if I wanted to send an image to the Space Shuttle computer while I was getting ‘On The Job Training’ in Houston, USA. You bet!! It was a simple key-press in reality but for space enthusiasts like me it was the most amazing thing in the world. In the following weeks I got on everyone’s nerves recounting my story over and over…
    The Daily Summary on Monday with David's comic. Credits: DLR

    The Daily Summary on Monday with David’s comic. Credits: DLR

    Back to the comic: In principle, astronauts can receive emails on the Station. But for your email to actually arrive in their inbox, you need to be on a special list that the astronauts manage themselves. Working at a control center we could of course use this communication channel, but we chose another way. Every day the crew receives a “daily summary” that is prepared on ground and radioed up. This document includes comments on the day’s schedule, various Space Station parameters and a question-and-answer section. We sometimes add a caricature, a riddle or another bit of fun to make our colleagues in space start the day with a smile. Astronauts are encouraged to study the Daily Summary in the morning so that any questions or comments they have can be asked during the daily planning conference. We placed the comic in the Daily Summary and added a few notes. Pretty soon we heard Samantha’s friendly voice during the Daily Planning Conference saying she was pleased about it … Now I am afraid that I must go seriously talk to David and warn him that he will not make many friends, if he is permanently talking about how he once sent a drawing to space …


    Safe journey back, Samantha!

    Safe journey back, Samantha! This time it seems to be true: the mission of Samantha and her colleagues Terry Virts and Anton Shkaplerov will end 11 June after 199,7 days. Only 8 hours short of 200 days. Wednesday at 16:40, with almost a day in advance, Terry handed over the command of the Space Station to Gennady Padalka.
    200 days in space. Credits: ESA/NASA

    200 days in space. Credits: ESA/NASA

    Thursday is the day of return. It is an early start before they close the hatch behind them once in the Soyuz capsule. This will be at around 8:55 CEST. At this point a series of checks and tests of their return vehicle will last for a few orbits. Around 12:20 CEST, the three astronauts leave Space Station: it is time for the so-called undocking. The Soyuz  “drops its moorings” and starts to fall, moving to a different orbit from the International Space Station. The return journey is effectively nothing more than a fall to the Earth in a controlled manner. After a few orbits, the most important moment comes: the Soyuz turns the engines on and gives the final push to start its deorbit at around 14:51. It then dives into the atmosphere. Soon after, two of the three modules that make up the Soyuz are discarded: the orbital module and the propulsion module have finished their task and are no longer needed. Only the landing module remains, protected by a heat shield. When it enters the more dense layers of the atmosphere, the module will be akin to a comet on fire, surrounded by glowing plasma. About 20 minutes from landing, scheduled for 15:43, the spacecraft manoeuvres to reduce its speed. Inside eight minutes it will slow to 800 km/h. 15 minutes before landing, four parachutes open: first two followed by two more in quick succession slowing the capsule to about 30 km / h. Just a second before landing, four small engines light up, like spaceships in science fiction movies, and slow the speed to impact to about 5 km/h. Despite being a bumpy ride, the astronaut’s is important: to make the reentry softer their seats are moulded to fit them perfectly, like protective nests. Despite this, there is no point in denying it: the return is no stroll in the park. Shocks, tears, decelerations: astronauts spend the last moments of their mission subjected to violent deceleration, rediscovering the meaning of weight. Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield recounted how he was surprised to feel the weight of his tongue and lips, and that even talking felt different after his months in space. Knowing Samantha, and her communication skills, we are not panicking: she will be able to continue to talk as she did before! Safe journey home! Timeline Times in Central European Summer Time:
    • 8:55 Expedition 43 hatch closing
    • 12:18 Undocking command to open hooks and latches
    • 12:20 Undocking – Hooks open and physical separation of Soyuz TMA-15M
    • 12:23 Separation burn 1, an 8-second burn of the Soyuz engines, .60 m/s
    • 12:24 Separation burn 2, a 30-second burn of the Soyuz engines, 1.45 m/s
    • 14:51 Deorbit burn lasting 4:35, 128 m/s. Soyuz is now around 12 km from the International Space Station at 401.8 km altitude
    • 15:18 Separation of Modules at 140 km altitude
    • Landing site. Credits: NASA

      Landing site. Credits: NASA

      15:26 Maximum loads on the astronauts up to five times normal gravity at 36.5 km altitude
    • 15:28 Command to open parachutes at 10.7 km. Two Pilot Parachutes are first deployed, the second of which extracts the drogue chute, slowing the Soyuz down from a descent rate of 230 m/s to 80 m/s. The Main Parachute is then released, slowing the Soyuz to a 7.2 m/s. The Soyuz descends at an angle of 30 degrees to expel heat, then shifts to a straight vertical descent.
    • 15:43 Touchdown after engine firing to slow the Soyuz down to 1.5 m/s around 80 cm above ground.
    Landing site: about 145 km southeast of Dzhezkazgan. Landing will occur approximately 1 hour, 34 minutes before sunset at the landing site in Kazakhstan.    


  • I’m a plumber by profession

    If I had some more free time – oh how I wish…! – if I had more free time and I had finished my home construction, landscaped the garden and my children were grown-up and no longer require my parenting, then I could finally read up on game theory. Or maybe learn to play the guitar, or drum. I might investigate what is happening in the field of electron microscopy – maybe even do a little more sports? Sitting on the sofa and try hard to not do anything might be an option too.
    Columbus module. Credits: ESA/NASA

    Columbus module. Credits: ESA/NASA

    In all likelihood I would run out of time due to sheer recreational stress… The situation on the Space Station is comparable these days: Three of the astronauts on the International Space Station have had their return to Earth delayed so we unexpectedly had additional crew time for them. This does not mean that Samantha and company were finally able to fully enjoy the great view of the Earth, because here at the control centre we have a long wish list of things that we want done. We recently moved to Node 3 the Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM), which was designed as a transport container for the Space Shuttle and left attached to Node 2 after the end of the Shuttle era. This move offers extra storage space so that Node 2 has an extra docking port for future visiting vehicles. We also finally exchanged the old-style video tape recorder in Columbus for a modern hard disk recorder. Water valve fixing Samantha faced exchanging a water valve, which had not been functioning as expected for some time now on Friday: we put the extensive activities on her timeline and it kept her busy. Samantha had to start work the day before by reconfiguring the Columbus module as the water valve is hidden behind panels next to the hatch and blocked by an experiment rack. So Samantha first had prepare the “Express rack 3” to tilt it away to enable access to the valve. Many cables and pipes had to be removed for power, nitrogen, as well as the venting and vacuum lines, video connections and data lines.
    Anna Pateraki on the STRATOS console supporting the work from ground. Credits: DLR

    Anna Pateraki on the STRATOS console supporting the work from ground. Credits: DLR

    On Friday, Samantha had to tilt the rack forward into the cabin, which was easy to do in weightlessness. She now had access to the area where the water valves are in Columbus and could remove the Nomex cover. We were now looking into Columbus’s innards. Columbus needs to be actively cooled as some hardware produces heat which is removed by water. In addition the air of the module must be cooled: air conditioning in space! Lastly humidity is an issue, astronauts sweat like everyone else and the water in the air must be kept within limits. Condensation would be a serious problem, especially in areas where electrical current is present. Therefore we use our cooling-water system to force condensation in a special device that cools the air and dehumidifies it before sending the collected water to the American recycling system. Columbus has two water pumps to do all this and various mechanisms to adjust the temperature of the water coupled with two heat exchangers that transfer absorbed heat to the outer ammonia cooling circuit, from where the heat is radiated into space. Of course that requires a lot of valves, for water shutoff, mixing or bypassing, and today Samantha was looking to replace the cleverly-named “Water-On-Off Valve 6” which we call WOOV6. Naturally the Columbus Control Centre made sure no more water flowed through that valve – in addition we allowed it to warm slightly: we didn’t want to ask the Italian astronaut to put on winter gloves for this operation. With the Express Rack 3 tilted, normal air circulation was disrupted – meaning the smoke detectors could not monitor all areas of the module and the astronauts had to be “prime for smoke detection”.
    Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield also did some do-it-yourself in Columbus. Credits: NASA

    Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield also did some do-it-yourself in Columbus. Credits: NASA

    With these prerequisites Samantha was “go” to start the 28-page procedure to replace the valve. For the next four hours the astronaut acted as Do-It-Yourselfer: she inspected the new WOOV, set up her workplace, investigated the old WOOV and took pictures of it, unplugged it in order: electric connections, water pipes – and eventually started to pull it out. Once installed she put in the new valve, insulated it and turned it on… In between there was a brief but hectic moment when Sam informed us that one of the quick-release fasteners was leaking. Water floating about the cabin is always something that we do not appreciate at all. We quickly got the situation under control though and she mopped up the spilled water. It was already evening in Europe before we could finally switch on the new valve for the first time from ground control. We let out a sigh of relief together with the engineers in Turin and Bremen – to misquote Galileo Galilei: “And yet it moves!” Well done – summer is here and it is important that cooling systems work… 😉


    Samantha overtakes Sunita as holder of longest spaceflight for women

    Sunita Williams during spacewalk. Credits: NASA

    Sunita Williams during spacewalk. Credits: NASA

    Since Saturday 6 June at around 16:21 CET (14:21 GMT) ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti holds the record for the longest single mission for a woman. NASA astronaut Sunita Williams previously held that record with 195 days after Expedition 33 on the International Space Station. Sunita remains the record-holder for number of spacewalks done by a woman (seven), including the most time spend on spacewalks in total for a woman at 50 hours, 40 minutes. Samantha’s Futura mission was extended after a problem with a Progress supply ferry. She already broke the record of longest single mission for an ESA astronaut last week.


  • Samantha beats ESA astronaut single-duration record

    Today at around 17:27 CET ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti will break the record for the longest uninterrupted spaceflight of an ESA astronaut. She was originally planned to return to Earth on 12 May but her Futura mission was extended after a problem with a Progress supply ferry.

    The record was held until now by ESA astronaut André Kuipers who spent 193 days in space in 2012 for his PromISSe mission. His mission was also extended after a spacecraft problem. From his blog:

    “A leak was found on the Soyuz capsule that was supposed to ferry the Expedition 31 crew up here. So the next Soyuz in line is being prepared quickly. It will not be ready before mid-march so the launch has been delayed by two months. This will delay landing for Dan, Anton and Anatoly. This also has consequences for myself, Don and Oleg. The delay is now six weeks and the official landing date is set for 1 July.”

    Neither Samantha or André have the record for the most time an ESA astronaut has spent in space, that record goes to ESA astronaut Thomas Reiter with 350 days spent in space over two missions, 179 on space station Mir in 1995 and 171 on the International Space Station as part of Expedition 2 in 2006.


    Cooking in space at the Restaurant at the end of the universe

    Six month have passed already since the beginning the Futura mission and Node 1, our personal “Restaurant at the end of the universe” has witnessed many space meals, with dishes rehydrated or heated in our food warmer. Usually our dishes are ready to eat or at least very easy to assemble: quick and easy! Did I mention already that my favorite dish is the wonderful quinoa salad with mackerel by Stefano Polato, the official chef of the Futura mission and of Outpost42? But the curry chicken with mushrooms and peas is great as well. They are full meals, healthy and delicious! I took with me a pretty good supply of read-to-eat pouches, but I also have the ingredients in separate pouches: it’s possible to assemble them onboard, although it can be quite a challenge in weightlessness. Take a look!

    It’s a bit of work, for sure, but I enjoy being able to change the quantities of the different ingredients a bit to vary the overall taste. I simply recreated the recipes of our chef Stefano, because I’m not a very creative cook. But maybe you have some ideas to suggest for my very last week onboard? Maybe a meal according to the principles we’ve been talking about on Outpost42. Here are my favorite ingredients here onboars, some from my bonus food and some from the ISS standard menu. Why don’t you try your recipe at home and send us a picture? Then we can see the difference making them in space. Or, if you’re prefer, you can create the Futura space recipes in your home kitchen. It’s easy, here Stefano showed me how to prepare them. And don’t forget to send us a picture! (On twitter with the hashtag #SpaceFoodAtHome or if you prefer Facebook just post them as a comment to this post). Power bar with Goji, chocolate and spirulina
    Whole red rice with turmeric chicken
    Quinoa salad with mackerel and vegetables


  • Moving Leonardo

    Update: Leonardo is now firmly in place attached to the Tranquility node.

    Don’t panic! The International Space Station is getting some redecoration as the ~10 000 kg Leonardo module will be moved to a different location today.

    The Italian-built Leonardo, also known as the more mundane Permanent Multipurpose Module, will be moved from the Unity module to the Tranquility module from 14:00 CEST. The Canadian-built Canadarm2 will grab Leonardo and transfer it to its new berthing place.

    They closed the hatch between Leonardo and Unity yesterday and made sure there were no leaks. The partners that run the International Space Station are moving Leonardo to make extra room for visiting cargo ferries. Two types of vessels can visit the Space Station, spacecraft that dock automatically and ferries that need to be berthed using the Station’s robotic arm. Moving Leonardo will free up an extra docking port for spacecraft that require berthing with the robotic arm such as Dragon, Cygnus and the Japanese HTV.


    Leonardo arrives at International Space Station in Space Shuttle cargo bay. Credits: ESA/NASA

    Leonardo arrives at International Space Station in Space Shuttle cargo bay. Credits: ESA/NASA

    The Leonardo module has an interesting history and is one of the reasons Samantha is currently on the Space Station. The module was designed and built in Italy by the Italian Space Agency and Thales Alenia Espace for use on NASA’s Space Shuttle. It’s first name was Leonardo Multi-Purpose Logistics Module as it performed a number of tasks in the Shuttle’s cargo bay. It flew to space and returned seven times between 2001 and 2010.

    On its eighth spaceflight it was left permanently attached to the International Space Station in 2011. Since then it is used for storage and as extra space. Its name was subsequently changed to Permanent Multipurpose Module. In return for building and supplying Leonardo and other Multi-Purpose Logistics Modules, NASA agreed that the Italian Space Agency would send astronauts to the International Space Station. One of these astronaut flights arranged under this barter agreement is being filled by none other than Samantha Cristoforetti.

    Watch the relocation live on NASA television from 14:00 CET today.


    Training for the worst

    Practicing emergencies is necessary so I accept that the volunteer fire department near our home at Hochstadt runs their siren in the evening, even though it excites our 3-year-old daughter just before bedtime. We also need to practice emergencies on the International Space Station in space you cannot phone highly-trained rescue workers to come to the rescue. Astronauts must be able to fend for themselves, extinguish a fire and protect themselves from any fumes. Even radio contact with experts in control centers cannot be assumed to work in a worst-case scenario.

    In today’s emergency exercise the control centres and astronauts worked together on a so-called On-Board Training or simply OBT. We had “stage directions” that defined for example that a leak would appear in the Japanese Kibo module through which air would escape.

    The alarm sounded on the Space Station with its penetrating noise and the computer screens of our Flight Controller filled up with numerous error messages, proving that the International Space Station had configured itself in emergency mode. The astronauts onboard reported shortly afterwards to Mission Control Houston with the news that they had a pressure drop on the Space Station to contend with. All radio communication between crew and flight controllers began with the words “For the workout exercise:” to ensure that everybody knew it was not a real emergency, but an exercise.

    The flight director in Houston declared a “Space Craft Emergency” – of preceded by “for the training exercise”. Sinje Steffen of the STRATOS team at the Columbus Control Centre checked whether Columbus was automatically reconfigured for this Rapid Depress scenario.

    The astronauts convened in the meantime 350 km above close to their Soyuz spacecraft. Since the Russian capsules are the Station’s lifeboats, each astronaut has a well-defined place there. They are usually the first assembly point of crew in an emergency. Once there, they decide together on how to proceed based on the scheme “Warning – Gather – Fight”. In our emergency script scenario, the astronauts had about five hours until critical low pressure (designated as T.Res) would be reached – time enough to try to find the leaking module and possibly stop the International Space Station from ‘bleeding out’.

    The astronauts followed the well-defined sequence to close various hatches to measure on which side the pressure dropped further. Slowly they were able to find their way closer and closer to the actual leak.

    Columbus Flight Director Katja Leuoth and her team was busy keeping up with the falling pressure values: a long list of minimum air pressure certification values exist for all Columbus components – each of these elements had to be switched off before their critical pressure was reached. Today’s commands were “for the training exercise”, so actual commands were not issued and power was not actually switched-off…

    The rapid pressure-drop (rapid depress) is one of three major emergency scenarios that are defined for the International Space Station.

    Depending on the size of the leak, there are various ways to “clog the hole”: from an oversized bicycle-patch to a plasticine-like material. All sealing is done of course from inside the space station – and is easy: Compared to the vacuum of space the pressure inside the ISS is considerable higher and pushes any seal onto the leak – a clear advantage compared to repairing a bicycle inner tube…

    Thomas Uhlig, Columbus Control Centre


  • Return of the Dragon

    I do not know if Samantha loved to catch butterflies as a child… but I am sure she never dreamt of catching a Dragon with a robotic arm!

    That is exactly what is going to happen today: she is in charge of grappling the SpaceX Dragon-6 cargo ship from her favourite spot in the Space Station: the Cupola. It is the first time that this task is been given to an Italian astronaut.  Samantha assisted her NASA colleague Terry Virts for the last SpaceX docking. If you are curious she wrote about it extensively it in her logbook (link).

    The Dragon spaceships perform a “stop and go” dance as they approach the Space Station: it’s all about the team play between the crew onboard and the Control Centres on Earth. After many miles travelled this part of its journey is very delicate. Dragon left Earth on Wednesday. Just ten minutes after launch the cargo spaceship reaches its first orbit and from there it starts its slow approach to the Space Station which lasts a couple of days.

    Credits: NASA

    Credits: NASA

    When the spaceship starts to ”see” the Space Station is time for the Control Centres (NASA’s one in Houston and the SpaceX’s one in Hawtorne, USA) to fire the engines and gently push the cargo up to 250 metres from the Station’s docking port.  Now the Dragon’s eyes are important: a radar system (that works with visible-light wavelength) and an infrared camera. The data from its ‘eyes’ are compared and allow the spaceship’s systems to know precisely its position and speed in relation to the Station. Meanwhile, Dragon and the Space Station are communicate via UHF band. From this moment on, the astronauts operate the SpaceX cargo remotely with the support of the Control Centres on the Ground.

    The first stop is at 50 metres from the orbital outpost. Once the OK to proceed comes from ground control the spaceship can move closer. From this point the Dragon enters the so-called “Keep-Out Sphere”. Sounds like science-fiction but it is nothing more than a term to make sure even more caution is heeded: nobody wants a Dragon to collide with the Space Station!

    The crew will the bring the Dragon spaceship to within 30 metres and then at 10 metres from the Space Station. Stop and ground control (Hi there Major TomJ)… this is where Samantha’s real work starts today: she will grapple the cargo vessel with the Canadarm robotic arm and… tame the Dragon!

    Stefano Sandrelli


    Taming a monster: ESA MARES experiment

    Some operations make us nervous because there is not much about we can do about them from ground. The MARES experiment in the Columbus space laboratory is one of these: it is large, highly complex, equipment and can sometimes be a bit of a problem child.

    The Muscle Atrophy Research and Exercise system (MARES) allows us to investigate muscle groups of astronauts and contributes to answering essential questions that arise during long space flights: how does the human body react to weightlessness? How fast to muscles degrade when they are not used in weightlessness?

    Muscle Atrophy Research and Exercise System (MARES). Credits: ESA

    Muscle Atrophy Research and Exercise System (MARES). Credits: ESA

    We think of MARES as a bit of a monster as it fills half of the Columbus module –it takes a while to unpack so each experiment involving MARES takes a long time, afterwards it must be disassembled again. It looks a little like the torture devices that can be found in many fitness centres – this might explain why the flight controllers have so much respect for the machine. It is a mechanically very complex device and any problems astronauts have encountered in the past have proven difficult to solve over the radio…

    So it was with a sigh of relief on my part that I was not on console when this was planned to be setup: many hours of astronaut crew time are designated in the timeline to work on MARES. I got nervous again when a colleague fell sick and I had to take over after all …

    Ultimately, of course my colleagues and ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti did excellent work: they had to replace a battery (a machine of this size requires more power than Columbus can provide on its own), install a new hard drive and finally test the device for the first time in orbit through by calibrating its servo-motors.

    The machine was then put back where every monster belongs, in its “cage”, an experiment cabinet in Columbus – until next time…!  

    Thomas Uhlig Columbus Control Centre

    Cover picture:  Only in Space recommended: four years ago MARES was installed in Columbus – Astronaut Doug Wheelock and proves prowess … (Credits: NASA)