Mission to Test 'Space Mail' Delivery System
An artist's view of the tether-based payload return system "YES2" aboard the Foton-M3 capsule.
Credit: ESA

Sending scientific payloads into space is expensive business, and advanced rocket systems to return them to Earth don't help the price tags.

On Friday Sept. 14, however, the Young Engineers Satellite 2 (YES2) will test an inexpensive "space mail" delivery system using a pendulum-like deployment to swing a lightweight payload back to Earth.

YES2, which will piggyback on a Foton-M3 capsule, is scheduled to launch into space at 7:00 a.m. EDT (1100 GMT) aboard a Soyuz-U rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan. In addition to the student-built satellite, 40 experiments will be conducted aboard the main Foton capsule, including one with live geckos and newts.

Space pendulum

YES2 is a spire-like payload is made of three main components: A red ball-like payload called Fotino; a support system called MASS; and a spring-loaded mechanism called FLOYD. Ground controllers will activate the package during Foton's final days in orbit.

?This will be moment the YES2 team has been waiting for,? said Roger Walker, a YES2 project manager with the European Space Agency (ESA). ?We hope to achieve a number of objectives: the deployment of the 30-kilometer (18.6-mile) tether, the successful de-orbit of the lightweight re-entry capsule using the tether rather than a rocket engine, and the survival of the capsule all the way to the ground."

The magic moment will start when spring-loaded FLOYD ejects Fotino and MASS on a tether made of Dyneema, the world?s strongest man-made fiber. As MASS keeps the tether taut, gravity will swing the two-piece package toward the Earth like a pendulum on a string.

When Fotino reaches a "zero" point, MASS will cut the tether and drop Fotino directly towards the planet's surface. YES2's team of 450 students from across the globe hope their 12-pound (5.5 kilogram) device, five years in the making, will safely parachute to the arid steppes of Kazakhstan after reentry.

?If all goes well, we should have confirmation of landing," Walker said. Should the mechanism work, it could prove to be one of the most inexpensive systems to return an orbiting payload to the surface--a design that may be a boon to International Space Station experiments needing to reach eartbound scientists on a tight budget.

Zero-g geckos

The ball-and-tether "space mail" delivery system, however, won't be the only payload reaching space about 171 miles (275 kilometers) above the Earth.

The Foton capsule will also carry 40 experiments weighing in at 882 pounds (400 kilograms). Scientists will use the results to explore fluid physics, biology, crystal growth, radiation exposure and exobiology in space.

NASA, which has some experiments aboard the ESA-led mission, is using the flight to test animal biology during Foton's 12-day orbit. One experiment will monitor the effects of microgravity on newts and geckos in aluminum containers.

Scientists at NASA's Ames Research Center, in Moffett Field, Calif., developed eight one-inch-deep (2.54-centimeter) aluminum boxes to house the animals, along with small video cameras, lights and water pumps.

"NASA's long-term goal is to use simple, easily maintained species to determine the biological responses to the rigors of spaceflight, including the virtual absence of gravity," said Kenneth Souza, a project scientist at NASA Ames, said of the experiment.