Soyuz TMA-03M docks to ISS, returns station to six crewmembers for future ops

The Russian Soyuz TMA-03M spacecraft, also known by its US designation of 29S, successfully docked to the ISS at the Mini Research Module-1 (MRM-1) “Rassvet” Nadir docking port, vacated just over one month ago by Soyuz TMA-02M/27S, at 3:19 PM GMT on Friday.

Soyuz TMA-03M:

Launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on Wednesday, the successful Soyuz TMA-03M docking finally puts an end to the fallout from August’s Progress M-12M launch failure, by boosting the ISS back up to six long-term crewmembers before yearend. The station had been operating at a reduced crew level since the departure of Soyuz TMA-21/26S on 16th September, caused by launch delays resulting from the August Progress failure, which led to concerns of a potential station de-crewing (later averted).

A few hours after docking, hatches between Soyuz TMA-03M and the ISS will be opened, whereupon Soyuz TMA-03M crewmembers Oleg Kononenko, André Kuipers and Don Pettit will float aboard the station to greet the already-aboard Dan Burbank, Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin. Together, the two crews will form the full complement of Expedition 30 until 16th March 2012.

Expedition 30 objectives:

Immediately after arriving aboard the station, and following the mandatory press conference, ISS tour and safety briefing, the Soyuz TMA-03M crew will enjoy some downtime over the Holiday period as they adjust and settle in to their new home, which involves adaptation to the microgravity environment, setting up personal crew quarters, and familiarization with station equipment and procedures.

Looking toward the New Year however, the now fully staffed station crew will get ready for an extremely busy period of research and cargo deliveries aboard the station – including the arrival of the first ever commercial cargo ship at the ISS.

Research aboard the station will continue throughout all periods of activity, with station utilization increased now that the US segment of the station is officially complete following the retirement of the Space Shuttle this summer. The target is for 35 crew hours per week to be devoted to scientific activities, although this is an average figure since busy periods may see reduced hours while quiet periods may see increased hours.

In the last few months, crews have even managed to achieve 45 crew hours per week of science, a figure which could become more common with Dr. Don Pettit now aboard the ISS, who is infamous for his scientific activities aboard the station.

One of the major tasks for Expedition 30, besides research, is to transition the station to new software loads, in order to support new hardware, and the arrival of the new commercial resupply vehicles.

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The first software transition is known as X2_R10 (the current version of ISS software is X2_R9), and is required to support new Enhanced Processor & Integrated Communications (EPIC) cards, which are hardware replacements for older cards that reside in the Command & Control (C&C) and Guidance, Navigation & Control (GNC) Multiplexer/Demultiplexers (MDMs). X2_R10 will upgrade the C&C and GNC MDM software to support the new EPIC cards, with software transition and EPIC card testing running in parallel.

The EPIC card installation and X2_R10 transition was previously planned for earlier this year, but was affected by the Progress M-12M failure since, in the new utilisation era aboard the station, where research takes priority over other activities, there were not enough crew hours available to devote to troubleshooting issues, due to the reduced onboard crew.

Source information shows that the gradual hardware transition to EPIC cards (new cards will temporarily run in parallel with old cards in order to reduce risk, with all old cards gradually being replaced), plus the subsequent software transition from X2_R9 to X2_R10, will take place from 27th December through to 5th January.

Pending a successful EPIC card installation and software transition to X2_R10, the next software transition will be from X2_R10 to X2_R11, which is required to support the upcoming SpaceX C2/C3 demo flight by, amongst other things, upgrading the station’s robotic Mobile Servicing System (MSS), which will be used in the capture and berthing of Dragon to the station, to software version 7.1. Source information shows that this transition will occur in two stages from 15th January through to 1st February.

Following a successful X2_R11 transition, the next software upgrade planned aboard the station is X2_PEP_R10, an upgrade which will increase the total allowable number of active payloads on the station at any given time, and also update software for the new Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM).

This transition will occur No Earlier Than (NET) February. While X2_PEP_R10 does require X2_R11, it is not a requirement for the visit of the Dragon spacecraft.

Visiting Vehicles:

Another major objective of the Expedition 30 mission will be the successful coming and going of numerous Visiting Vehicles (VVs), including the first ever visit of a commercial VV to the ISS, which will usher in a new era for the station.

The first VV activity will occur on 25th January, when the Progress M-13M/45P spacecraft will undock from the Docking Compartment-1 (DC-1) “Pirs” Nadir docking port. A day later on 26th January, Progress M-14M/46P will launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, for a docking to DC-1 Nadir on 28th January.

Following undocking, the Progress M-13M spacecraft will transfer to a 500km orbit (ISS orbits at a mean altitude of around 400km) in order to release the Chibis-M microsatellite, which will be attached to the Progress in place of the removable docking probe.

Source information shows that Progress M-13M will undock with the hatch open in order to facilitate the Chibis-M deployment, and as such all trash disposed of on Progress M-13M will need to be certified for vacuum. Following satellite deployment, Progress M-13M will perform a de-orbit burn from 500km, with no ISS conjunction issues expected (evaluations are still ongoing however).

The next milestone will be by far the biggest for Expedition 30 – the 7th February launch of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule on its combined COTS-2/3 mission. Following a two-day catch up to the station, an ISS “fly-under” will occur on 9th February, in order to accomplish all COTS-2 objectives, which include communication between Dragon and the station via the COTS UHF Communication Unit (CUCU), and initiation of a rendezvous abort. (L2 SpaceX Content link)

If all COTS-2 objectives are successfully demonstrated, Dragon will then be allowed to proceed onto COTS-3 objectives the following day on 10th February, which is a full rendezvous with capture and berthing to the ISS. During the rendezvous, which will see Dragon approach the ISS from underneath and behind, the ISS crew will begin monitoring the Dragon when it is 1000m from the ISS, and will begin taking action (i.e. actively participating in the rendezvous) once Dragon reaches 200m from the station.

There will be two hold points during the rendezvous, at both the 30m and the 10m meter mark, in order to allow all parameters to be verified as nominal and a Go/No Go decision to be given for proceeding to the capture of the Dragon by the Space Station Remote Manipulator System (SSRMS), controlled from the Cupola by US astronauts Dan Burbank and Don Pettit.

Friday’s successful docking of Soyuz TMA-03M has enabled the berthing of Dragon by delivering Pettit to the station, who is the only trained US crewmember able to assist Burbank with the capture (ISS flight rules dictate that two trained crewmembers must be present on the ISS for capture and berthing of every required VV). Both Burbank and Pettit will be conducting Dragon capture proficiency training with the Robotics Onboard Trainer (ROBoT) over the coming months.

Eight separate demonstration objectives exist for Dragon to successfully prove during the C2/C3 mission, with each one needing to be successfully completed before approval is given to proceed to the next. However should an off-nominal situation occur, Dragon can perform two types of abort thruster burns – one a large change of velocity (Delta-V) in the X axis (in the axis of the ISS’ Velocity Vector), or a small Delta-V in any axis.

Should Dragon berth to the ISS successfully, hatches will be opened and the non-essential cargo inside Dragon (no essential cargo will be included since the mission is a test flight) will be transferred to the ISS, following which some of the ISS’ trash and items to be returned to Earth will be loaded into Dragon in place of the newly delivered supplies.

L2 info shows that 41 CTBE (Cargo Transfer Bag Equivalent) of cargo, including crew provisions and empty bags to facilitate trash disposal, will be delivered to the ISS on C2/C3 (Dragon has a capacity of 50 CTBE), while 16 CTBE will be returned to Earth.

Dragon will remain berthed to the ISS until 28th February, whereupon it will be released for re-entry and recovery off the coast of California.

The next major VV to visit the station will then be ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicle-3 (ATV-3), which is currently scheduled to launch to the station atop an Ariane V on 9th March 2012.

Expedition 30 will actually end before ATV-3 docks to the ISS, since Soyuz TMA-22/28S will undock from the MRM-2 Zenith port on 16th March, marking the beginning of Expedition 31, before ATV-3 docks to the ISS at the Service Module (SM) Aft port three days later on 19th March.

This will mark the first post-Shuttle docking to SM Aft, again due to the failure of Progress M-12M in August.

Other Expedition 30 activities:

An additional task for Expedition 30 includes Russian EVA-30 by Oleg Kononenko and Anton Shkaplerov, currently scheduled for 14th February, although this is likely to move to another date in order to deconflict it with Dragon’s mission to station, thus protecting Dragon against any potential launch and subsequent ISS arrival delays.

Dragon would be unable to rendezvous with the ISS during an ongoing EVA since Dan Burbank and Don Pettit would be “locked out” in different areas of the station to protect against a Pirs airlock depressurisation failure, thus preventing Burbank and Pettit from being present in the Cupola together.

Source information also shows that ISS flight controllers are monitoring the status of two external Orbital Replacement Units (ORUs) on the ISS – an S-band Antenna Sub Assembly (SASA) and the Main Bus Switching Unit-1 (MBSU-1), both of which have been showing anomalous data readings in recent months.

While redundant hardware does exist to protect against a failure, potential unplanned EVAs by US crewmembers continue to be looked at in order to Remove & Replace (R&R) either of the ORUs. Potential use of the Special Purpose Dextrous Manipulator (SPDM) “Dextre” is also being analysed to assist in the potential R&Rs.

Any external US hardware failures on station in future (such as the August 2012 failure of the Loop B Pump Module) will be more difficult to fix, since, due to the retirement of the Space Shuttle, station crews must now perform all EVAs, which drastically reduces the time that can be spent on research. The final Space Shuttle flights did however deliver enough spare ORUs to the ISS to support future R&Rs – with spare SASAs and MBSUs are currently in good supply on the ISS, with plans for future deliveries.

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