Soyuz MS-14 – finally delivers Skybot humanoid robot to Station at second attempt

by Chris Gebhardt

In an unusual situation, Roscosmos launched the Soyuz MS-14 crew vehicle without any humans aboard.  The move is testing critical upgrades to the Soyuz MS series spacecraft, specifically the vehicle’s abort system interface with the upgraded Soyuz 2.1a rocket which will take over crew launch duties next year.

While no humans were aboard, Soyuz MS-14 carried a humanoid robot, called Skybot, up to the International Space Station.  While the liftoff – from Site No. 31/6 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, at 23:38:31 EDT on Wednesday – was nominal. The docking on Saturday was aborted ahead of final approach due to issues with the KURS rendezvous system on the ISS. Following a relocation of Soyuz MS-13, MS-14 docked on Monday night.

No humans for Soyuz MS-14:

Soyuz MS-14 was purposely not carrying any humans to orbit, instead acting as a test vessel to perform in-flight verification and validation of new motion control and navigation systems, a revamped descent control system, and a new abort system software interface with the Soyuz 2.1a carrier rocket.

This non-human test flight is necessary to clear the way for Russian crew launch transition from the Soyuz-FG to the Soyuz 2.1a rocket beginning in Spring 2020.

The Soyuz 2.1a rocket was designed from the outset to be a crew launch vehicle; however, delays to its introduction led to the creation of the Soyuz-FG rocket to bridge the gap between the aging Soyuz-U and the Soyuz 2.1a.

With Soyuz 2.1a now in steady operation and ready to assume crew flight duties, Roscosmos is conducting this non-human mission to verify that the Soyuz MS spacecraft’s Launch Abort System will not trigger when the Soyuz 2.1a rocket rolls onto the proper azimuth (heading) after liftoff.

The Soyuz MS-14 mission patch, featuring Skybot’s robotic hand reaching out toward a Russian spacesuit gloved hand of its creator. (Credit: Roscosmos)

Prior crew vehicle launches from Russia utilized the Soyuz-U and Soyuz-FG rockets, which both used analog Flight Control Systems. Those systems were incapable of rolling the rocket onto course after launch.

Therefore, the Soyuz-U and Soyuz-FG rockets had to literally be turned on their launch pad to the correct launch azimuth so that all the rocket had to do after liftoff was simply pitch over onto the proper trajectory.

As such, the Soyuz MS crew spacecraft’s Launch Abort System was designed so that if it detected a roll in the rocket’s orientation it would trigger the abort system to pull the crew away from what would be a failing rocket.

But the Soyuz 2.1a uses digital Flight Control Systems and performs a roll to align itself to the correct launch azimuth after lifting off.

That creates a disconnect between the Soyuz 2.1a rocket and the Soyuz MS-series crew vehicle.

To account for this, Roscosmos has designed a software patch that will now be tested in-flight with Soyuz MS-14.

Essentially, this patch tells the Soyuz MS-14’s flight computers that a roll after liftoff is “Okay” and to not trigger an abort when the roll program begins.

The Launch Abort System for the Soyuz is a critical safety feature – as seen in October 2018 when the Soyuz MS-10 mission aborted at booster separation because of a critical failure of the Soyuz-FG rocket.

The abort saved the lives of the two crewmembers, who are currently on the International Space Station having relaunched on their mission in March 2019.

In addition to the abort system test, this mission is performing in-flight testing of a new navigation system and a revamped descent control system.  This will rigorously test these new systems that will be standard on the upcoming Soyuz GVK uncrewed cargo spacecraft that is set to debut in 2022.

A detailed launch to docking rendezvous timeline is available on L2.

While the flight was proceeding without issue, the final leg of its arrival suffered an issue when the KURS system failed to lock on to the Soyuz, resulting in the spacecraft slewing ahead of final approach.

With the crew losing sight of the vehicle and having to find it by looking out of the window, controllers in Houston called up to make sure the US crew was awake, as the situation became slightly tense. However, there was no immediate danger to the ISS given the Soyuz was not approaching as final approach was not commanded.

An abort was commanded and the Soyuz began to depart the region surrounding the ISS, called the Keep Out Zone.

The issue was the result of a problem on the ISS – the KURS signal amplifier – as opposed to the Soyuz itself. This system will be replaced while another attempt to dock the Soyuz will take place next week.

However, this will be via a convoluted plan, where the Russian crew enter Soyuz MS-13, move it to another port and then make a second attempt to dock Soyuz MS-14 on the vacated port.

The first part – the relocation of Soyuz MS-13 – was successfully completed.

Soyuz MS-14 then evenutally followed the mitigation path by docking with the vacated spot on Monday.

A robotic crewmember for Soyuz and the Station:

While Soyuz MS-14 was not carrying humans to space, it does have a crewmember.

Skybot F-850, formerly known simply as FEDOR (Final Experimental Demonstration Object Research), is a Russian humanoid robot – complete with arms and legs – built to replicate the movements of a remote operator.

Skybot can also conduct some actions autonomously.

The robotic humanoid will – in part – provide G-force and temperature information inside Soyuz during the various phases of launch and rendezvous with the Station. 

After the rendezvous with the Station, Skybot will be brought inside the ISS where a series of movement tests – both commanded by the Russian crew and autonomously performed – will be carried out by the Russian crew during the robot’s 2 week mission.

In addition to the motion tests, Skybot will also test its voice program and ability to communicate with the Station’s Russian crew.  It will also assist the crew with certain task in order to assess the robot’s ability to function in microgravity.

In so doing, Skybot will become the second semi-autonomous robotic humanoid to carry out a mission aboard the Station.

The first was NASA’s Robonaut2.

Unfortunately, the two ISS robotic crewmembers will not meet each other as Robonaut2 is currently on Earth undergoing final upgrades before re-launching to the Station.

After two weeks on Station, Skybot will be placed back inside the Soyuz MS-14’s Descent Module.  Soyuz will then undock from the ISS on 6 September for landing back in Kazakhstan.

Skybot seated in the Commander’s seat of Soyuz MS-14, ready for launch. (Credit: Roscosmos)

During Deorbit, Reentry, and Landing, Skybot will once again provide G-force and temperature regime information.

This is currently Skybot’s only planned mission to the Station, though Russian officials have not ruled out a much longer follow-up mission should this one prove successful.

Skybot and Robonaut2 – the ISS’s robotic crewmembers:

Skybot – in a sense – is the Russian cousin of NASA’s Robonaut2 robotic humanoid.

Robonaut2 launched to the International Space Station on 24 February 2011 on the Space Shuttle Discovery’s STS-133 mission.

After 7 years in space, Robonaut2 returned to Earth on 5 May 2018 on the CRS-14 SpaceX Dragon for maintenance, repairs, and upgrades.

At the CRS-14 pre-launch news conference, NASA stated that the plan was to relaunch Robonaut2 in “about a year.”

Now a little more than a year later, NASASpaceflight checked on the status of Robonaut2.  In response, NASA said, “As of now, Robonaut2 is targeted for a return to the International Space Station no earlier than (NET) late 2019.  Teams continue to prepare Robonaut2 for on-orbit tasks, complete fit checks and train future crew members heading to station.”

Based on the “late 2019” relaunch date, two options are available: The NG-12 Cygnus flight from Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, which is targeting a NET 21 October launch, or the SpaceX CRS-19 Dragon mission, currently targeting launch NET 4 December.

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