Lift Off: Soyuz Takes the Space Station Express Lane
Image: Ron Garan floating in the Internationa
An Awe-Inspiring Space Station Odyssey Launched aboard the Soyuz TMA-21 space vehicle on April 4, 2011, NASA astronaut Ron Garan was a part of the Expedition 27/28 crew. He remained in orbit for over five months, landing in Kazakhstan on Sept. 16. During his stay, Garan kept the world updated with a constant stream of photographs from space, capturing everything from aurorae, wildfires, hurricanes and, remarkably, a meteor. This slide show is devoted to a small selection of some of his best pictures. The entire collection can be browsed on Garan's TwitPic stream. Before leaving orbit, Garan posted a blog on the "Fragile Oasis" website about his inspiring space station odyssey. Here's some excerpts from what he had to say.
The Cupola "I've been told that when Sasha Samokutyaev, Andrey Borisenko and I land later today, we will have spent 164 days in space (162 on the International Space Station), made 2,624 orbits of the Earth, and will have flown 65,340,224 miles (but who's counting?)," Garan said. "After all this time in space, separated from the Earth, I have come to know a new existence up here. An existence that is without many of the sights, sounds, smells and feel of life on Earth, but an existence with its own share of special defining qualities." Shown here, Garan is photographed in the space station's cupola, looking down on the coast of Australia. The next day, he returned to Earth.
Aurora As energetic particles from the sun impact the upper atmosphere of Earth, a beautiful light show erupts. As solar activity was pretty high during Garan's tour of duty, he had numerous opportunities to photograph the majestic and dynamic aurora. Shown here, the green auroral light (generated by excited oxygen molecules) snakes over our planet with the constellation of Orion hanging overhead.
Irene As Hurricane Irene barreled toward the East Coast of the U.S. in August, Garan and his crewmates had the best perspective on the sheer size of the storm. Shown here, on Aug. 27, Irene had just made landfall.
Eye of Katia As hurricane season marched on, another hurricane threatened the U.S. Fortunately, Hurricane Katia proved to be less of a threat than Irene. Garan captured this detailed photograph of Katia's eye on Sept. 5 as he flew overhead. The hurricane was passing through the Caribbean, near Puerto Rico.
Texas Wildfires It's not only natural disasters spawned by hurricanes that are obvious from space. As the space station orbited over the drought-ridden state of Texas, a number of wildfires are obvious, belching smoke high into the atmosphere.
Sunglint "I will miss watching the Earth transform from day into night and night into day sixteen times a day," said Garan. The space station is treated to 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets per day, so there are endless opportunities to see how the sun transforms the land and ocean below. Shown here, sunlight bounces off the waters surrounding Newfoundland on Aug. 27.
A Meteor! In Space! "I will miss watching meteors streak across our atmosphere below us, the rapid fire paparazzi flashbulbs of lightening storms at night, and flying so close to dancing curtains of auroras that you feel like you could reach out and touch them," he said. In this impressive (and now famous) photograph, Garan's photography skills came into play, capturing a meteor during the Perseid Meteor Shower in mid-August.
Night Lights As the space station passes over the night-side of Earth, human activity is traced with light. Seen here, Garan managed to photograph the River Nile delta in Egypt...
Icebergs! An iceberg floats off Petty Harbour (Newfoundland) in the Labrador Sea. "It's bigger than my hometown of Yonkers, NY," Garan remarked.
Sunrise "I will miss looking at our beautiful planet and the grandeur of our universe from this vantage point," said Garan.
Sunset... and Moonset? Setting almost simultaneously, the sun disappears over the horizon, followed closely by a crescent moon.
The Shuttle During Space Shuttle Atlantis' (and Shuttle Program's) final mission, Garan snapped the orbiter as it approached for docking on July 10, 2011. The shuttle's cargo bay doors are open, showing the cylindrical Raffaello Multi-Purpose Logistics Module used to resupply the space station. Caribbean islands form the backdrop.
Find out what went on during the shuttle's final mission to the International Space Station in our special photographic tour.
Two Russian cosmonauts and NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy blasted off aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket on Thursday and headed toward the International Space Station, a trip that is expected to take less than six hours, compared to the usual two-day voyage.
Launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan occurred at 4:43 p.m. EDT. Docking is slated for 10:32 p.m.
The trip in the express lane was three years in the making.
“At first everybody was really apprehensive about it, but later on our ballistic specialists calculated the possibility, looked at the rocket and verified the capabilities of the Soyuz (capsule) which now has a digital command and control system and an onboard computer that can do pretty much anything,” incoming station commander Pavel Vinogradov, speaking through a translator, told reporters at a pre-launch press conference broadcast on NASA Television.
Russia conducted three test flights with Progress cargo ships before clearing the Soyuz capsule carrying people to attempt the short-cut.
The route requires not only precision timing for launch, but a very exacting series of maneuvering burns to catch up to the space station in just four orbits. The usual trip to the station, which flies about 250 miles above Earth, unfolds over 34 orbits.
“In reality, it’s not very far to the space station, although with the velocities we’re talking about, it’s quite an achievement,” deputy station program manager Kirk Shireman said during a NASA interview.
If any problems develop, flight controllers can waive off the expedited schedule and retarget docking at the station for Saturday.
“We’ll try it … with this crew. There are lots of things to learn and understand and then make a decision with subsequent flights whether we’ll do the four-orbit rendezvous,” Shireman said.
Meanwhile, Russian engineers already are looking into cutting the trip time to two orbits, Vinogradov said.
Aside from less time spent in the Soyuz’s extremely cramped quarters, the crew should be able to reach the station before any disquieting impacts of microgravity — nausea, dizziness, vomiting — set in, Vinogradov added.
“For the first four or five hours we are going to be fully operational, without any of the negative side-effects,” he said.
The shorter trip also means biomedical experiments and equipment can reach the station sooner, improving science results.
And then, there’s the ice cream the cosmonauts are bringing as a gift for the three crewmembers already aboard the station.
“Within such a very short period of time, probably the ice cream will not melt,” Vinogradov quipped.
Image credit: NASA