International Space Station Is Racing The Clock After Soyuz Failure

Today’s failed Soyuz launch thankfully resulted in no casualties, but the fate of the International Space Station (ISS) is now in question.

Just two minutes after liftoff, the crew of the Soyuz MS-10 found themselves in a situation that every astronaut since the beginning of the manned space program has trained for, but very few have ever had to face: a failure during launch. Today the crew of two, Russian Aleksey Ovchinin and American Nick Hague, were forced to make a ballistic re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere; a wild ride that put them through higher G forces than expected and dropped the vehicle approximately 430 km from the launch site in Baikonur. Both men walked away from the event unharmed, but while the ordeal is over for them, it’s just beginning for the crew of the ISS.

Until a full investigation can be completed by Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, the Soyuz rocket is grounded. This is standard procedure, as they obviously don’t want to launch another rocket and risk encountering the same issue. But as the Soyuz is currently the only way we have to get humans into space, this means new crew can’t be sent to the ISS until Roscosmos is confident the issue has been identified and resolved.

Soyuz MS-11, which would have brought up three new crew members to relieve those already on the Station, was scheduled for liftoff on December 20th. While not yet officially confirmed, that mission is almost certainly not going to be launching as scheduled. Two months is simply not long enough to conduct an investigation into such a major event when human lives are on the line.

The failure of Soyuz MS-10 has started a domino effect which will deprive the ISS of the five crew members which were scheduled to be aboard by the end of 2018. To make matters worse, the three current crew members must return to Earth before the end of the year as well. NASA and Roscosmos will now need to make an unprecedented decision which could lead to abandoning the International Space Station; the first time it would be left unmanned since the Expedition 1 mission arrived in November 2000.

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The Russians And The Americans Only Want The Moon

For the generations who lived through the decades of the Space Race, the skies above were an exciting place. Every month it seemed there was a new announcement of a new mission, a Lunar landing, new pictures from a planetary probe, or fresh feats of derring-do from astronauts or cosmonauts. Space was inspiring!

As we moved through the Shuttle, Mir, and ISS eras, the fascinating work didn’t stop. The Mars rovers, the Cassini probe, the Chang-e Lunar mission, or the Hubble telescope, to name just a very few. But somehow along the way, space lost the shine for the general public, it became routine, mundane, even. Shuttle missions and Soyuz craft carrying ISS astronauts became just another feature on the news, eventually consigned only to the technology section of the broadcaster’s website. The TV comedy Big Bang Theory derived humor from this, when a character becomes an ISS astronaut, yet is still a nobody on his return to Earth.

If you yearn for a bit of that excitement from the Space Race days you may just find it in another story tucked away in the tech sections, though it comes from a collaboration rather than a competition. NASA and the Russian space agency Roscosmos have announced a partnership to take what will be the next step towards a future of deep space exploration, to place a manned space station in a Lunar orbit. The idea is that it would serve first as a valuable research platform for missions in deeper space than the current relatively low orbit of the ISS, and then as a launch base for both lunar missions and those further afield in the Solar System.

Of course, there is no lunar-orbiting station, yet. There is a long and inglorious history of proposed space missions that never left the drawing board, and this one may yet prove to be the next addition to it. But what are real are the two indisputable facts, that NASA and Roscosmos have inked this partnership, and eventually there will have to be a replacement for the ISS. This project stands a good chance of being that replacement, which makes it of great interest to anyone with an interest in technology. It’s a little out of the world of usual Hackaday fodder, but if you are like us you will want to believe that one day it will be launched.

Even with a lunar orbiting space station, it will be a very long time indeed before we see manned missions going significantly further into the Solar system. Perhaps another approach is required to go further, a laser-driven silicon wafer aimed at a nearby star.

Moon image: 阿爾特斯 [CC BY-SA 3.0].