Recoverable craft shot into space for science mission
BY STEPHEN CLARK
Posted: September 15, 2007
Russia launched a recoverable capsule crammed with more than 1,300 pounds of international scientific and engineering test experiments on Friday to begin a 12-day excursion in space.
The Foton M3 capsule, loaded with an array of Russian and European payloads, was launched at 1100 GMT (7:00 a.m. EDT) aboard a Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Less than nine minutes later, the 14,000-pound spacecraft separated from the Soyuz upper stage and entered an orbit nearly 200 miles above Earth.
The capsule will complete about 190 orbits of Earth before it fires retrorockets to slow the craft for re-entry. A 5,500-pound return capsule will parachute to a landing along the Russia-Kazakhstan border Sept. 26.
Experiments inside the spacecraft will largely focus on technology demonstrations, biology investigations, material sciences, fluid physics, and the exposure of materials to the harsh environment of space.
Attached to the forward end of the Foton craft is a 79-pound experiment to test an innovative "space mail" method of returning small capsules from orbit.
Designed and built with the help of more than 450 students across Europe, the Young Engineers' Satellite 2 mission will attempt to slingshot a small recoverable capsule from space into Earth's atmosphere.
The mission is managed by Delta-Utec, a Dutch company specializing in space tether technologies.
A carrier called FLOYD on the Foton capsule will unreel nearly 19 miles of tether material in the early morning hours Sept. 25. A 12-pound craft called Fotino and a disposable instrumentation box known as MASS will be attached to the end of the tether, which is as thin as a typical fishing line.
Fotino will fly ahead and below the Foton spacecraft during much the automated two-and-a-half hour activation and deployment process. At the time of Fotino's release, the capsule will be in a gravity-induced backward swing relative to Foton, according to Michiel Kruijff, technical director for Delta-Utec and lead engineer for the YES2 mission.
The tether system will slow Fotino by about 224 miles per hour, enough to cause the spherical capsule to drop from orbit and dip into the atmosphere to land in the steppes of central Kazakhstan, Kruijff said.
Once on the ground, radio beacons on Fotino will broadcast the capsule's location to recovery teams. One of the beacons was hardened to survive a potential parachute failure, Kruijff said.
Fotino carries several sets of sensors to measure the unique environment it will experience. Data from the sensors will be retrieved after landing.
"We have focused our results on the engineering challenge, so the results are secondary for us," Kruijff said of the instrument package. "But we thought it important to show that our capsule can carry and support a significant and complex payload."
Fotino will become the smallest spacecraft to re-enter Earth's atmosphere, and the nearly 20-mile length of the tether will make it the longest ever flown in space.
Tethered delivery systems could provide opportunities for inexpensive return options for small payloads in orbit. Engineers have considered using such systems to return equipment from the international space station, but Kruijff said safety issues will likely thwart those concepts.
"Space mail will probably not be implemented immediately due to the current space station issues," Kruijff said. "But the door is then again wide open for other applications."
Another payload aboard the Foton carries a habitat for newts, geckos and snails, which will be extensively studied by scientists before and after the mission. The experiment is jointly managed by the NASA's Ames Research Center and Russia's Institute for Biomedical Problems.
A similar payload was launched aboard the previous Foton mission in 2005, but the this year's flight will help validate results from previous experiments, according to Michael Skidmore, project manager for NASA's contribution to the Foton M3 mission.
"NASA's long-term goal is to use simple, easily maintained species to determine the biological responses to the rigors of spaceflight, including the virtual absence of gravity," said Kenneth Souza, project scientist for the mission.
Another experiment provided by the European Space Agency and Germany will probe the effects of weightlessness and radiation on fish and single-celled organisms.
A total of 40 experiments from scientists in Europe, Canada, Russia and the United States comprise the Foton spacecraft's payload.