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Home | Lifestyle | Amy’s Everyday Astronomy: Soyuz Failure and the Future of Spaceflight
Photo courtesy NASA

Amy’s Everyday Astronomy: Soyuz Failure and the Future of Spaceflight

Last week, the Soyuz spacecraft had to suddenly abort its flight to the ISS, sending Cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin and Astronaut Nick Hague on a rapid decent to the Earth below.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Nick Hague gave his account of what it was like during the failed mission.

“We knew that if we wanted to be successful, we needed to stay calm and we needed to execute the procedures in from of us as smoothly and efficiently as we could. Any time you’re launching yourself into space and your booster has a problem when you’re going 1,800 meters per second, things are pretty dynamic, and they happen very fast.”

Warning lights gave the first indication of a problem just as the team was able to see the curve of the horizon as the atmosphere faded to black.

“I knew once I saw that light that we had an emergency with the booster, that at that point we weren’t going to make it to orbit that day—so the mission changed to getting back down on the ground as safely as we could. That’s the system that saved our lives, Alexey and I are standing because of that.”

Although many have been skeptical of future launches aboard Soyuz rockets, Hague reassures the public that there is little need to worry.
“[the abort system is] on every rocket, and for manned launches on the Soyuz, they haven’t had to use that system for 35 years, but it’s always been there. It’s always been ready, and we proved that last week. The Soyuz is an engineering marvel. That thing is reliable, and I’m just glad that there are so many people that have invested so many years of their life making that system as strong as it is.”

Alexey Ovchinin spoke highly of Nick Hague’s response to the emergency, saying, “My partner, Nick, acted as a true expert and was completely coolheaded. I never saw even a hint of fear in his eyes. [he responded] immediately to all questions from the Earth. It was obvious that he was in total control of the situation.”

Hague recalls when they finally landed safely and were waiting for rescue, “You can imagine the scene.

We’re kind of hanging upside-down from our straps…and we looked at each other, big grins. He holds out a hand. I shake his hand. And then we start cracking a few jokes between us about how short our flight was.”

Now that the crew is home and in good health, Roscosmos has continued their investigation into what happened.

The Soyuz MS-series has a modular design. At launch, four first-stage boosters ignite. Each of these are fueled by kerosene RD-107A engines. Because these four boosters are radially arranged, once they finish their job, they are simultaneously jettisoned.

The Russian agency believes that it is likely that a collision between part of the first and second stage booster separation occurred when part of the first stage didn’t separate cleanly.

If that’s the case, the failed booster may have collided with the body of the rocket as it ejected minutes after launch.

This would have led to the automatic abort.

Though the investigation isn’t yet completed, the Russian agency is close to solving the mystery. In fact, Roscosmos is expected to release a full report around October 20th.

NASA Chief, Jim Bridenstine shared his faith in continued work with Roscosmos in the near future. “I fully anticipate at this point that we will fly again on a Russian Soyuz rocket, and I have no reason to believe, at this point, that it won’t be on schedule.”

Bridenstine went on to say, “I look forward to a very bright future for both or these countries and for all of our international partners. The NASA family has to be so proud of all the people that worked so hard and prepared so well for this. We had the right people in the right place.”

Likewise, Dmitry Rogozin of Roscosmos states, “This rocket has a long history of failureless execution,” reaffirming his faith in the Soyuz program.

Both men are certain that Alexey Ovchinin and Nick Hague will be able to fly again aboard a Soyuz rocket this coming Spring.

This is all good news, but a Spring launch could still mean the ISS is in jeopardy. Though the crew has plenty of supplies, and can continue their experiments in orbit, they can’t stay up there forever. The ISS has a Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft docked, currently. It arrived last June and has a 200-day certification life.

This means that the craft must be cleared to fly prior to the end of that time. Failure to do so might mean the ISS is left without a crew on board. And with SpaceX and Boeing test launches still a way off for manned craft, it may be a while before a replacement crew can be sent to the ISS.

Without a crew to man the onboard systems, the ISS could potentially lose attitude control, which would send it tumbling. If this were to happen, the antennas would quickly lose signal lock and be unable to receive commands.

Without those commands, the solar arrays would no longer be pointed at the sun and the batteries would completely run out of power. Once this happens, no crew could dock with the station in order to regain control.

Though this would pose no immediate danger to those of us living on the ground, it would mean a substantial loss for all the countries that invested in, and still use the station for zero gravity experiments and training.

So, while shooting for the moon is a worthy venture, it seems we have more pressing concerns. And with NASA unable to fly without the help of commercial companies or international partnerships, perhaps our immediate focus should be on getting crews off the ground before we make plans to aim for our nearest cosmic neighbor.

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For a daily dose of Everyday Astronomy with Amy, like and follow her Facebook Page; to read previous articles, click here.

About Amy Cooley

A native El Pasoan, Amy Cooley attended Parkland High School before beginning her studies in physics at EPCC. With her love of dark skies increasing, she transferred to New Mexico Tech University where she earned her degree in Astronomy. Moving back to El Paso in 2008, she now wants to share her love of the cosmos with the city she calls home.

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