A diverse suite of science experiments from around the world is now in orbit after a flawless launch aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket. The Foton microgravity research capsule is embarking on a 16-day mission in space before returning to Earth in mid-June.
The unmanned Foton-M2 craft lifted off on the Soyuz at 1200 GMT (8 a.m. EDT) from launch complex 2 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Nine minutes later, the three-stage rocket placed the spacecraft into the expected orbit with an apogee, or high point, of about 189 miles, a perigee of around 163 miles, and an inclination of 63 degrees.
The mission carries a wide array of over three dozen experiments in a variety of fields including physical sciences, biology, fluid mechanics, exobiology, materials sciences, and technology demonstrations. The 1,200-pound payload largely comes from European nations.
Many of the scientific investigations finding their way to space aboard the Foton are being reflown after their Foton-M1 capsule was destroyed when its Soyuz booster exploded seconds after liftoff in October 2002. All the experiments on the failed flight are on this mission with the exception of a French biological incubator and a few student experiments, European Space Agency Foton project manager Antonio Verga told Spaceflight Now.
An applicable technology demonstration called Favorite - for Fixed Alkaline Vapor Oxygen Reclamation In-flight Technology Experiment - will test a new way to generate oxygen from water molecules.
Called electrolysis, the process splits hydrogen and oxygen elements from water molecules to be used for breathing aboard manned spacecraft such as the international space station. The two-man crew on the station normally relies on a Russian Elektron system, but that unit recently malfunctioned, leaving the astronauts to use a backup method that produces oxygen through the burning of solid-fuel "candles."
The Favorite hardware riding in the Foton capsule is a newly developed design from Europe that "does not contain moving parts, making it inherently simpler and more reliable," according to an ESA fact sheet. The system is planned to operate for about 40 hours near the end of the flight and is expected to produce 13 liters of oxygen per hour from an average energy usage of about 290 watts. This amount of breathable oxygen is enough to supply half an astronaut.
An experiment originally flown aboard Columbia's ill-fated mission in 2003 was also launched into space aboard the Foton capsule. This effort deals will heat pipes for thermal control systems on future spacecraft.
The largest of the payloads is an automatic fluid physics facility containing four individual experiments. At 390 pounds, FluidPac comprises almost half the internal volume of the Foton's entry module.
A 59-pound exposure experiment housed on the outside of the entry capsule called Biopan contains a number of organic samples such as bacteria and fungi cells. Other bacterial spores will be placed in a simulated environment similar to that on the surface of Mars to evaluate their performance in such harsh conditions.
Several re-entry experiments will test new reusable heat shield technologies made of a ceramic composite material and how the high temperature affects organic compounds like amino acids and rocks containing imbedded microbes.
In addition, a precursor experiment for a future ESA research facility to fly on the international space station carries two scorpions to space to test the affects on the animals of the launch vibrations and fiery re-entry into the atmosphere.
Other components of the Foton's science complement will examine how crystals grow in space, analyze the behavior of molten metal alloys in weightlessness, and show how single-cell water organisms react to space.
A small capsule known as Fotino had been slated to be riding as a piggyback payload on the launch, but the small student-built sphere was removed due to inadequate funding. Developed by 100 European students, Fotino was supposed to be released by the Foton before entering the Earth's atmosphere to test a number of inexpensive technologies in advance of the larger Young Engineers Satellite-2 mission.
The next Foton flight in 2006 will carry YES2 to demonstrate a tether-based inflatable entry vehicle that uses no rocket engines or parachutes.
Control stations around the world will oversee the Foton mission, ranging from an engineering support room in mission control in Korolev outside Moscow to a European scientific operations center in Sweden.
The 14,000-pound Foton-M2 spacecraft will orbit Earth for almost 16 days before its scheduled re-entry and landing on June 16 at 0832 GMT (4:32 a.m. EDT). The entry module containing the experiments will make a parachuted landing near the city of Orenburg, Russia, near the Kazakhstan border.
This mission marks the 11th time the European Space Agency has significantly participated in flights involving the Foton capsule and its predecessor called Bion dating back to 1987. The Foton's design is based on the Russian Vostok craft that cosmonaut pioneer Yuri Gagarin rode to and from orbit in the first human spaceflight in 1961.
Russia flew twelve Foton missions 1985 through 1999, followed three years later by the botched Foton-M1 launch. The Foton-M craft features several improvements over earlier capsules such as a larger battery capacity to allow larger payloads with higher power consumption.
Previous Foton flights had launched from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in far northern Russia, and this marks the first such craft to ever lift off from the Kazakhstan launch site.
"Plesetsk has been more and more exploited for military and strategic launches, requiring stricter security rules to be enforced," Verga explained. "Baikonur is better suited for launches dealing with scientific and commercial applications."
The move also reportedly opens up space for the development of the next-generation Angara rocket program.
The next mission in the Foton program is scheduled for October 2006 when Foton-M3 will carry another large research complement into orbit.
"Beyond Foton-M3, there are plans to continue the program with even wider scientific objectives," Verga said. "Formal discussions are still to be held."
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