Soyuz MS-09 docks with ISS; Artificial Intelligence to join crew in orbit

by Chris Gebhardt

For the second time this year, Roscosmos launched three crewmembers towards the International Space Station.  Soyuz Commander Sergei Prokopyev and fellow crewmembers Dr. Alexander Gerst and Dr. Serena M. Auñón-Chancellor launched on Soyuz MS-09 at 07:12 EDT (1112 UTC) on Wednesday, 6 June from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to begin a two-day rendezvous with the Station.  The new crew will be joined on the Station by the first space-flying Artificial Intelligence robot, CIMON.

The ninth flight of the newly upgraded MS-series of the veteran Soyuz crew vehicle has been in build and integration operations for years, with final major preparations picking up in earnest on 4 May when the Soyuz MS-09 craft entered final radio systems testing.

On 20 May, the crew performed final Sokol launch and entry space suit fit checks and checkouts inside Soyuz MS-09.  This was followed two days later on 22 May with the fueling of the spacecraft with propellant and compressed gases.

The following day, technicians moved Soyuz MS-09 to the Spacecraft Assembly and Testing Facility (SC ATF) where they installed the craft on the assembly jig and mated it to the third stage adaptor – which connects the craft to the third stage of the Soyuz-FG rocket.

By 31 May, Soyuz MS-09 was encapsulated inside its payload fairing shroud, and the three prime crewmembers completed all pre-launch entry and checkouts inside the spacecraft.

The Soyuz MS-09 crew mission patch. (Credit: Roscosmos)

On 1 June, Soyuz MS-09 was transported by rail to the final integration facility.  Between 2 and 3 June, the spacecraft was mated to the Soyuz-FG’s third stage, the combined third stage/MS-09 mated to the core stage of the Soyuz-FG rocket, and the payload shroud was fitted with its Launch Escape Tower.

To commemorate the 2018 FIFA World Cup, which is being hosted by the Russian Federation from 14 June – 15 July, the Russian Soyuz-FG’s third stage had a special livery at its base with the official 2018 World Cup emblem.  The prime and back-up crews also signed a commemorative football as part of a special ceremony marking the games.

On 3 June, Roscosmos held a traditional technical management meeting to review all engineering aspects of the Soyuz-FG launcher and Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft and officially cleared the rocket and craft for rollout and launch.

The next day, 4 June, crews transported the Soyuz-FG rocket by rail to launch site № 1, Gagarin’s Start, at Baikonur Cosmodrome – the same pad Yuri Gagarin launched from on the Vostok 1 mission and the first human space flight on 12 April 1961.

Per the plan, the Soyuz-FG rocket launched with Soyuz MS-09 at 1112:41 UTC (07:12:41 EDT; 14:12:41 Moscow time) on Wednesday, 6 June 2018.  While the precise to-the-second launch time can shift by a couple seconds on launch day due to final day-of ISS positioning calculations relative to the launch site, the launch window is instantaneous with no ability to hold for any technical or weather related issue.

The Soyuz-FG rocket that will launch the MS-09 crew bears a special livery to commemorate the 2018 FIFA World Cup being hosted by Russia. (Credit: Roscosmos)

Thankfully, the Soyuz-FG rocket, Soyuz MS-crew vehicle, and weather at Baikonur usually always cooperate, with technical and weather-related scrubs being extremely rare for both versions of Soyuz. No issues were suffered during this latest Soyuz FG countdown.

In all, this was the 138th flight of a crewed Soyuz vehicle and was the 64th launch of the Soyuz-FG rocket since it entered service in 2001.  After an 8 minute 44 second climb to orbit, Soyuz MS-09 slipped into a two-day, 34 orbit rendezvous profile for a docking with the International Space Station on Friday, 8 June.

This occurred several minutes ahead of the scheduled 1307 UTC (09:07 EDT; 16:07 Moscow time) docking time.

Due to ISS positioning requirements to ensure a daytime landing for the Soyuz MS-07 crew – which successfully occurred on Sunday, 2 June – it was not possible to reposition the ISS again to allow for an expedited 4 orbit/6 hr – or even a 2 orbit/3hr – rendezvous and docking profile for Soyuz MS-09.

The Crew:

Launching aboard the Soyuz MS-09 vehicle for an anticipated six-month stay aboard the International Space Station were two rookie astronauts and one veteran astronaut.

Sergei Valeriyevich Prokopyev is a rookie Roscosmos cosmonaut who will command the Soyuz MS-09 during its journey to and from the International Space Station.  Joining Prokopyev is fellow rookie astronaut Dr. Serena M. Auñón-Chancellor of NASA, and veteran astronaut Dr. Alexander Gerst of the European Space Agency.

The Soyuz MS-09 crew. From left to right, Dr. Serena Auñón-Chancellor (NASA), Sergei Prokopyev (Roscosmos), and Dr. Alexander Gerst (ESA). (Credit: Roscosmos)

Following tradition, the callsign for Soyuz MS-09 has been selected as Altai, meaning “Gold Mountain” and the name of a mountain range in Central and East Asia where the countries of Russia, China, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan meet.

Sergei Valeriyevich Prokopyev (Roscosmos):

Having served as backup Commander for the Soyuz TMA-18M and Soyuz MS-07 missions, Sergei Prokopyev made his first voyage to space as Commander of the Soyuz MS-09.  Born on 19 February 1975 in Sverdlovsk, Russia, Prokopyev finished school in 1992 and immediately entered the Tambov Higher Military Pilot School where he specialized in Command Tactical Aviation, Air Movement Control, and qualified as a pilot engineer before graduating in 1997.

Thereafter, he took up duties as a Deputy Commander of aircraft services while studying accounting, analysis and auditing at the Michurinsk State Agrarian University – which he graduated from in 2005 as a certified economist.  In 2007, he left his post as Deputy Commander of aircraft services to take up a two-year position flying Tu-22M3s as Commander of the air detachment of the 52nd Heavy Bomber Aviation Regiment in the Shaikovka, Kaluga region.

Beginning in 2010, he served as Commander of an aviation group of strategic bombers flying Tu-160s with the 121st Heavy Bomber Aviation Regiment in the Saratov region.  Later that same year in September 2010, Prokopyev was recommended for enlistment as a cosmonaut candidate and was officially selected as a test cosmonaut on 12 October 2010 as part of the cosmonaut detachment of Roscosmos.

Sergei Prokopyev, Commander of Soyuz MS-09 and Flight Engineer for Expeditions 56/57. (Credit: NASA)

Prokopyev began test cosmonaut training on 1 February 2011 with his fellow selectees and began zero gravity simulator training 11 months later in November 2011.  As part of his training, Prokopyev undertook EVA testing in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in March 2012 where he gained experience in typical EVA operations with the Orlon-MK modified spacesuit and practiced various skills needed for external maintenance and upkeep of the International Space Station.

On 31 July 2012, Prokopyev passed the state examination for cosmonaut duties and on 3 August was officially selected as a test cosmonaut for Roscosmos.  The very next week, he participated with two other cosmonauts in developing procedures that Soyuz crews would use upon an emergency landing in deserted areas.  Also upon acceptance as a test cosmonaut, the Russian Ministry of Defence formerly dismissed him from the armed services in August 2012.

After serving as backup Soyuz Commander for two Soyuz missions to the Space Station, Prokopyev was officially assigned as the prime commander and a member of the Expedition 56 and 57 crews in April 2017.

Upon arriving at the International Space Station, Prokopyev will serve as Flight Engineer 5 for the on-going Expedition 56 increment before becoming Flight Engineer 2 for Expedition 57.

Dr. Serena M. Auñón-Chancellor (NASA):

Dr. Serena Auñón-Chancellor was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, on 9 April 1976 and earned a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from The George Washington University, Washington, D.C., in 1997 and a Doctorate of Medicine from the University of Texas – Health Science Center at Houston in 2001.

Dr. Serena Auñón-Chancellor in her launch and entry Sokol suit. (Credit: Roscosmos)

In 2004, after completing a three-year residency in Internal Medicine at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas, Dr. Auñón-Chancellor went on to serve as Chief Resident in the Internal Medicine Department at the same institution while simultaneously completing an Aerospace Medicine Residency and becoming a Master of Public Health in 2007 – during which time she also became board certified in Internal and Aerospace Medicine.

After two years as Chief Resident, Dr. Auñón-Chancellor began work at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, in August 2006 as a Flight Surgeon under a University of Texas Medical Branch/Wyle Bioastronautics contract where she spent more than nine months in Russia supporting medical operations for International Space Station crew members in Star City, Russia, and water survival training in Ukraine.

As part of the Space Shuttle Program, Dr. Auñón-Chancellor served as the Deputy Crew Surgeon for Space Shuttle Endeavour’s STS-127 crew.  She also served as Deputy Lead for Orion – Medical Operations.

In 2009, Dr. Auñón-Chancellor was selected as an astronaut candidate as one of 14 members of the 20th NASA astronaut class.  After two years, she graduated from astronaut candidate training in November 2011 after completing a series of exercises designed to familiarize her and her fellow astronaut candidates with scientific and technical knowledge of space systems, intensive instruction in Space Station systems, spacewalks, robotics, physiological training, T-38 flight training, and water and wilderness survival training.

As part of her astronaut training, Dr. Auñón-Chancellor spent two months in Antarctica searching for meteorites as part of the ANSMET (Antarctic Search for Meteorites) expedition where she lived on the ice 200 nautical miles from the South Pole.  She then supported the NEEMO 16 mission off the southern coast of Florida where she operated the Deep Water submersible.  After participation in NEEMO 16, she served as an official aquanaut aboard the Aquarius underwater laboratory as part of the NEEMO 20 undersea expedition from 20 July – 2 August 2015.

Prior to flight assignment, Dr. Auñón-Chancellor served in the International Space Station Operations Branch and Commercial Crew Branch handling medical issues while also serving as lead CAPCOM for SpaceX’s CRS-4 and CRS-8 Dragon cargo resupply missions for the International Space Station.

Over the course of her career thus far, Dr. Auñón-Chancellor has received numerous awards and honors, including: United States Air Force Flight Surgeons Julian Ward Award (2009), Outstanding UTMB Resident Award (2007), William K. Douglas Award (2006), Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Society (2005), and the Thomas N. and Gleaves James Award for Excellent Performance by a Third-Year Resident in Internal Medicine (2004).

In January 2017, Dr. Auñón-Chancellor was assigned as the backup crewmember to Dr. Jeanette Epps who was to fly on Soyuz MS-09 and be a Flight Engineer for Expeditions 56 and 57.  One year after this assignment was revealed, NASA announced the Dr. Auñón-Chancellor would replace Dr. Epps on the mission.

Dr. Auñón-Chancellor stands between two of the four boosters and beneath the core stage of the Soyuz-FG rocket that will take her to space for the first time. (Credit: Dr. Auñón-Chancellor’s Twitter account)

In accordance with NASA policy, no explanation was given for this crew; however, last minute crew changes like this have happened in the past and can be for a variety of factors including a desire to better match astronaut specialties with research experiments that will be on Station during specific increments.

With Soyuz MS-09 docking to the International Space Station, Dr. Auñón-Chancellor will serve as Flight Engineer 4 during the Expedition 56 increment before serving as Flight Engineer 1 for Expedition 57.

Dr. Alexander Gerst (ESA):

Dr. Alexander Gerst of the European Space Agency is the only veteran astronaut launching with Soyuz MS-09.  Born 3 May 1976 in Künzelsau, Germany, Dr. Gerst earned a degree in Geophysics from the University of Karlsruhe, Germany, and a Master’s degree in Earth Sciences from the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand – both of which he earned with distinction.  In 2010, he earned a Doctorate in Natural Sciences from The Institute of Geophysics of the University of Hamburg, Germany, with a dissertation focusing on geophysics and volcanic eruption dynamics.

During his years of study, Dr. Gerst volunteered as a boy scout leader, firefighter, and water rescue lifeguard.  From 1998 to 2003, he participated in various international scientific collaborations and field experiments, several of which led him to remote locations such as Antarctica.

Dr. Alexander Gerst of the European Space Agency. (Credit: ESA–J. Harrod)

From 2001 to 2003, while researching for his master’s thesis on a volcano in New Zealand, Dr. Gerst developed new volcano monitoring techniques to improve forecasts of volcanic eruptions, and he worked to further develop these instruments at the Institute of Geophysics at the University of Hamburg between 2004 and 2009 while earning his Doctorate.

As part of his Doctoral research, Dr. Gerst’s goal was to determine the mechanics and the energy released during the first seconds of a volcanic eruption.  His research led him to volcanoes on all continents, concentrating on an active volcano in Antarctica.  A year before earning his Doctorate, he was selected by the European Space Agency  (ESA) has an astronaut candidate in May 2009. He officially joined ESA in September of that year and completed basic astronaut training in November 2010.

Less than one year after becoming a full-fledged ESA astronaut, Dr. Gerst was assigned to his very first space mission as a Flight Engineer for the Expeditions 40 and 41 increments that were scheduled for 2014.  As is customary for the European Space Agency, Dr. Gerst’s flight was officially named the Blue Dot mission after American astronomer Carl Sagan’s description of Earth’s faint visibility as “a pale blue dot” in a photograph taken by NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft at a distance of 6 billion kilometres (3.7 billion miles, or 40.5 AU) from Earth.

After successful completion of all training exercises, Dr. Gerst launched on his first space mission aboard the Soyuz TMA-13M spacecraft on 28 May 2014, beginning a 165 day stay in orbit aboard the International Space Station.

The Blue Dot mission’s extensive scientific program included experiments in physical science, biology, and human physiology as well as radiation research and technology demonstrations.  All experiments made use of the international laboratory to improve life on Earth or prepare for further human exploration of our solar system.

Dr. Gerst just before his first spacewalk in October 2014. (Credit: ESA)

During Expedition 41, Dr. Gerst performed his first, and to date only, EVA where he and fellow astronaut Reid Wiseman moved a failed cooling pump from a temporary to long-term storage location on the Station’s Truss structure as well as installed a new relay system to provide backup power options to the mobile transporter, which moves the Space Station’s robotic arm around the outside of the laboratory.

During his first stay on the Station, Dr. Gerst became the sixth European Space Agency astronaut to take up long-term residence on the orbital lab and the third German to do the same.  His first mission came to an end on 10 November 2014 with a successful landing of the Soyuz TMA-13M spacecraft on the Kazakh steppes.

During his first mission, Dr. Gerst accumulated 165 days, 8 hours, and 1 minute in space.  In 2017, he was officially assigned to his second space mission as part of the Expedition 56 and 57 crews.  His second mission, in keeping with ESA tradition, will be called Horizons.

With Soyuz MS-09 arriving at the Space Station, Dr. Gerst takes up the role of Flight Engineer 3 for the Expedition 56 increment before taking over as Commander of the International Space Station for Expedition 57.  In so doing, Dr. Gerst will become the second European to command the Station and the first German astronaut to do so.

During his mission, Dr. Gerst will be joined by the first Artificial Intelligence to fly in space.

CIMON – An artificial intelligence:

Known as the Crew Interactive Mobile Companion, CIMON was developed by Airbus in cooperation with IBM.  In short, CIMON is the first Artificial Intelligence (AI) that will fly to space, is the size of a medicine ball, and weighs around 5 kg. CIMON will be brought up to the Station on the SpaceX CRS-15 mission, which is currently scheduled to launch in late June.

CIMON (Crew Interactive MObile CompanioN) – the first Artificial Intelligence crew assistant for spaceflight crews. (Credit: Airbus/NASA)

“CIMON will be the first AI-based mission and flight assistance system [for space missions],” said Manfred Jaumann, Head of Microgravity Payloads from Airbus.  “We are the first company in Europe to carry a free flyer, a kind of flying brain, to the ISS and to develop artificial intelligence for the crew on board the space station.”  

CIMON’s overall structure was created via 3D printing and its internal “brain” is the Watson AI from IBM.  Moreover, CIMON has a digital “face” display and is capable of interacting with the Station crew, specifically Dr. Gerst, via facial expressions, emotions, and voice.

Additionally, its “neural AI network” gives CIMON the ability to not only assist with tasks but to learn and offer solutions to issues – thus making it a “colleague” of sorts to the Station crew.  Therefore, it is hoped that with CIMON the crew can do more than just work through a prescribed checklist and procedure; they can engage with their assistant and make their work easier when carrying out every day routine tasks.

It is also hoped that CIMON can increase efficiency, facilitate mission success, and improve security, as it can also serve as an early warning system for technical problems.  To this end, CIMON is free flying and can orient and reorient itself in the microgravity environment of the Station.

Like a baby duckling, CIMON has been imprinted to Dr. Gerst using voice samples and photos of the astronaut and has been pre-programmed with procedures and plans for activities inside the ESA Columbus module of the International Space Station.

Moreover, according to Airbus, Dr. Gerst had a say in the selection of CIMON’s screen face and computer voice so that he could “make friends” with his electronic colleague.  Once the functional testing of the system has been completed, Gerst will work with CIMON a total of three times. First, the duo will experiment with crystals, then work together to solve a Rubik’s cube, and finally perform a complex medical experiment using CIMON as an intelligent flying camera.

In its first Space mission, CIMON will only be equipped with a selected range of capabilities.  In the near term, researchers plan to use CIMON to examine group effects that can develop over a long period of time in small teams and that may arise during long-term missions to the Moon or Mars.

Social interaction between people and machines, between astronauts and assistance systems equipped with emotional intelligence, could play an important role in the success of long-term missions.

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