The final quarter of 2023 saw the International Space Station (ISS) celebrate 25 years in orbit, though there was no letup in the ongoing work as the Expedition 70 crew settled into the tasks and experiments that are carried out onboard the orbital laboratory. Cargo spacecraft arrived at the Station carrying supplies and fresh experiments and departed, taking scientific results, redundant equipment, and trash down to Earth.
On Oct. 25 at 17:49 UTC, Roscosmos cosmonauts Oleg Kononenko and Nikolai Chub began a spacewalk to install a synthetic radar communications system, release a nanosatellite to test solar sail technology, and inspect and photograph an external backup radiator on the Nauka multipurpose laboratory module.
Kononenko wore an Orlan spacesuit with red stripes; Chub the blue stripes. This was the sixth spacewalk in Kononenko’s career and the first for Chub. It was the 268th spacewalk for Station assembly, maintenance, and upgrades. The spacewalk was successfully completed on Oct. 26th at 01:30 UTC after seven hours and 41 minutes and was designated Russian EVA-61.
Today's spacewalk is underway! @AstroJaws (in the spacesuit with red stripes) and @LunarLoral (in the spacesuit with no stripes) will make maintenance upgrades to the @Space_Station for about 6.5 hours. pic.twitter.com/vYsX9RBaLn
— NASA (@NASA) November 1, 2023
NASA followed the Russian spacewalk with another spacewalk on Nov. 1 at 12:05 UTC. The spacewalk was designated as US EVA-89 and was the first spacewalk for astronauts Jasmin Moghbeli and Loral O’Hara. Moghbeli served as extravehicular activity (EVA) crew member one and wore a suit with red stripes. O’Hara served as extravehicular crew member two and wore an unmarked suit. They successfully replaced one of 12 trundle bearing assemblies on a solar alpha rotary joint. These bearings enable the station’s solar arrays to rotate to track the Sun as the Station orbits Earth to collect and store electricity for power generation for Station systems. They also removed a handling bar fixture to prepare for the future installation of a roll-out solar array and properly configured a cable that was previously interfering with an external camera.
The astronauts had planned to remove and stow a communications electronics box called the Radio Frequency Group, but there was not enough time during the spacewalk to complete the work. The duo lifted some multilayer insulation to make a better assessment of how to approach the job before replacing the insulation and deferring the task to a future spacewalk.
During the spacewalk, one tool bag was inadvertently lost. Flight controllers spotted the tool bag using external Station cameras. Fortunately, the tools were not needed for the remainder of the spacewalk. Mission Control analyzed the bag’s trajectory and determined that the risk of re-contacting the Station was low and that the onboard crew and Station were safe with no action required
The spacewalk concluded at 18:47 UTC after 6 hours and 42 minutes.
A further busy few days saw several maneuvers and the arrival of CRS-29 at the Station. On Nov. 9 at 21:11 UTC, the ISS performed a nominal reboost using the 85P Aft Progress R&D thrusters on SM Aft. This reboost was one of two planned reboosts in November to set up phasing conditions for the expected arrival of the MS-25 cargo mission via a two-orbit rendezvous on Dec. 1. The burn lasted for 15 minutes 22 seconds with a change in velocity of 1.43 meters per second.
The launch of SpaceX CRS-29 took place on Nov. 9 from historic Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida at 8:28 PM EST (01:28 UTC on Nov. 10). SpaceX utilized Cargo Dragon capsule C211 for this mission, with CRS-29 being its second flight. This mission was SpaceX’s 29th CRS mission to the ISS and the ninth under CRS phase two.
Shortly later, at 15:07 UTC, the ISS performed a successful 0.5 m/A Pre-determined Debris Avoidance Manoeuvre (PDAM) using the Aft Progress R&D thrusters. The purpose of this PDAM was to clear the risk of conjunction with a piece of space debris.
The following day, on Nov. 11 at 10:07 UTC, Cargo Dragon docked autonomously with the Station’s Harmony module. Dragon carried supplies for the crew, some holiday treats, and several science experiments, including the ILLUMA-T Laser Communication demonstration — a NASA investigation that tests technology to provide enhanced data communication capabilities on the space station.
Other experiments launched on CRS-29 include NASA’s AWE (Atmospheric Wave Experiment) — which uses an infrared imaging instrument to measure the characteristics, distribution, and movement of atmospheric gravity waves — and Gaucho Lung, sponsored by the International Space Station National Lab, which studies how mucus lining the respiratory system affects the delivery of drugs carried in a small amount of injected liquid, known as a liquid plug. Lastly, Aquamembrane-3, an investigation from the European Space Agency (ESA), also launched on CRS-29 and continues the evaluation of replacing the multi-filtration beds used for water recovery on the Station with a type of membrane known as an Aquaporin Inside Membrane.
Another busy period for arrivals and departures occurred at the end of November with the departure of Progress MS-23. Progress undocked from MIM2 Poisk on Nov. 29 at 07:55 UTC. The spacecraft performed a deorbit burn at 11:02 UTC and re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere at 11:35 UTC before impacting the Pacific Ocean at 11:43 UTC. The departure of MS-23 made way for the arrival of the next Progress mission: Progress MS-25.
The launch of Progress MS-25 was Roscosmos’ eighth Soyuz 2.1a mission of 2023 and occurred out of Site 31/6 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Friday, Dec. 1 at 09:25 UTC. The uncrewed MS-25 Progress 86P spacecraft arrived at the ISS’s Prichal module at 11:18 UTC on Dec. 3. Roscosmos cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko manually docked the spacecraft to the orbital complex after the automated rendezvous system took the Progress spacecraft out of its expected orientation. Progress MS-25 delivered almost three tons of food, fuel, and supplies to the ISS for the Expedition 70 crew.
Dec. 6, 2023, marked 25 years since the first two modules of the ISS — Zarya and Unity — were mated during the STS-88 mission. Shuttle Endeavour‘s Canadarm robotic arm reached out and grappled Zarya, which had been in orbit for over two weeks, and attached it to the Unity module stowed inside Endeavour’s payload bay. Endeavour would undock from the young dual-module station one week later, beginning the era of the Station’s assembly.
The Expedition 70 crew celebrated with a call to NASA’s Associate Administrator Bob Cabana and ISS Program Manager Joel Montalbano to discuss the orbital outpost’s accomplishments since its assembly began on Dec. 6, 1998. Cabana served as commander on STS-88 when both modules were robotically mated and then outfitted during a series of spacewalks. Montalbano, NASA’s sixth Station leader since the program’s inception, remarked, “We want to celebrate today all the people who designed, built, and operate the International Space Station.”
Six crew members, one station. 🛰️
— NASA's Johnson Space Center (@NASA_Johnson) December 10, 2023
Two Japanese cubesats, BEAK and Clark, were deployed on Dec. 18th to explore voice and imagery transmissions and test future planetary probe technologies. BEAK and Clark were deployed at 08:35 UTC and 10:16 UTC, respectively.
BEAK is a 3u cubesat developed by The University of Tokyo, Nihon University, and JAXA to demonstrate technologies for nano-sized planetary probes in the future. BEAK will demonstrate orbital maneuvering by drag modulation with jettison of aerodynamic decelerator (SAP’s and membrane), deployment of aeroshell supported by shape memory alloy frames, a nano-sized propulsion system (water resistojet), and nano-sized attitude control systems.
Clerk-sat1 is a tiny 1u cubesat designed and built by Clark Next Tokyo High School and ArkEdge Space Inc. The satellite will send voice messages and image data recorded by high school students to ground control stations and general amateur stations. This data is expected to encourage organizations and individuals working on environmental issues on Earth and in space. Furthermore, the cubesat will take photos of Earth and downlink them to ground control stations and general amateur stations.
Wednesday, Dec. 21, saw the undocking of CRS-29 from the ISS at 22:05 UTC. Bad weather in the splashdown zones led to delays with the original schedule, which called for a departure on Dec. 14. Splashdown occurred on the morning of Dec. 22 off the coast of Tallahassee, Florida.
Four astronauts packed over 1,588 kilograms of science and hardware inside Dragon for retrieval and analysis back on Earth. Astronaut Moghbeli and Commander Andreas Mogensen from ESA removed science cargo freezers containing research samples from Station EXPRESS racks and stowed them inside Dragon for the ride back to Earth. Astronauts O’Hara and Satoshi Furukawa transferred cargo bags packed with hardware and trash and strapped them inside Dragon, securing them for the descent back to Earth’s surface.
The departure of a second U.S. resupply ship is currently set for 13:05 UTC on Friday, Dec. 22nd. The Northrop Grumman Cygnus spacecraft will be released into Earth orbit by the Canadarm2 robotic arm, completing a four-and-a-half-month stay at the ISS. Cygnus will remain in orbit for a few days before reentering the atmosphere and burning up over the Pacific Ocean with its cargo of trash.
(Lead image: The Cygnus cargo resupply spacecraft and Soyuz MS-24 docked to the ISS. Credit: NASA)