A Russian Soyuz-U launch vehicle, carrying an unmanned Foton-M spacecraft – packed with over 40 European Space Agency (ESA) scientific payloads – has launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, in Kazakhstan.
Launch occurred at 7am Eastern, although ESA’s webcast of the launch suffered technical issues, meaning no live coverage of the lift-off has been made available.
The Soyuz-U launch vehicle is a Russian workhorse for unmanned payloads. In service since 1973, the three stage vehicle will take just under nine minutes to inject its Foton-M3 capsule into orbit, for a 12 day science-rich mission.
A direct descendant of the R-7 launcher configuration – which put Sputnik 1 into orbit on 4 October 1957 – the Soyuz launcher, and all its predecessors, consist of four conical lateral boosters, which first appeared on the R-7 rocket, arranged around a core stage. Each stage runs on a fuel mixture of kerosene and liquid oxygen.
The 6.5 ton Foton-M3 capsule is carrying a 400 kg European experiment payload with experiments in a range of scientific disciplines, including fluid physics, biology, crystal growth, radiation exposure and exobiology. The spacecraft will expose the experiments to microgravity and, in the case of a handful of experiments, to the harsh environment of open space.
‘Everything has been prepared to the best effort of everyone involved,’ says Antonio Verga, ESA’s Foton Project Manager. ‘There are no showstoppers at this moment. Now we just have to wait for a successful launch and orbital injection.’
Towards the end of the mission, the Young Engineers Experiment (YES2) will be deployed from Foton. On 25 September, the small ‘Fotino’ re-entry capsule will be released from the end of a 30 kilometre-long tether to demonstrate the possibility of returning small payloads to Earth at a fraction of the cost of current methods.
While the mission will see the launch of a host of payloads, ranging from high tech experiments, to even a collection of mice and sand eels, most of the attention has been placed on that ‘YES2’ experiment, which involved more than 450 students from the ESA Member States, as well as Russia, Poland, Japan, North America and Australia, since it began 5 years ago.
The meter-long YES2 payload is made up of three elements: Fotino – a small spherical capsule that will return to Earth after release from the tether. Fotino has a diameter of 40 cm and a mass of 5.5 kg.
MASS (Mechanical data Acquisition Support System) – an 8 kg carrier which holds Fotino in place with four straps. MASS will burn up in the atmosphere on re-entry. FLOYD (Foton LOcated YES2 Deployer) – the YES2 deployment mechanism bolted onto the Foton spacecraft. Inside FLOYD is a spool around which is wound a 30 km tether. Only 0.5 mm thick, the tether is made of Dyneema – the world’s strongest fibre.
The tiny 36 kg payload will ride perched atop of the Foton spacecraft, ready for 11 days of microgravity experiments provided by ESA and various European research institutions, stretched out below the Photon by the 30 km tether.
‘This will be moment the YES2 team has been waiting for,’ said Roger Walker, ESA’s YES2 project manager. ‘We hope to achieve a number of objectives: the deployment of the 30 km tether, the successful de-orbit of the lightweight re-entry capsule using the tether rather than a rocket engine, and the survival of the capsule all the way to the ground.
September 26 is when the capsule is scheduled to make its return, landing in the border zone between Russia and Kazakhstan.
‘If all goes well, we should have confirmation of landing using an Argos radio beacon in the capsule. Our main concern will be to confirm the successful parachute landing of Fotino in the targeted landing zone. However, no matter how many of our objectives are achieved, we will be able to say with pride that YES2 has been a very valuable and inspirational project for the student community in Europe and internationally.’