Russian Space Lab Returns to Earth
A Russian soyuz rocket lofts the recoverable Foton M-2 spacecraft on a 16-day mission to fly numerous experiments in orbit, some of which were orginally flown aboard NASA's lost Columbia flight STS-107 and the ill-fated Foton M-1 mission.
Credit: ESA.

An international collection of experiments safely returned to Earth today with a fiery sunrise re-entry aboard the recoverable Foton space capsule after spending over two weeks conducting operations and studies in orbit.

The Foton-M2 craft plummeted back to Earth and touched down about 90 miles southeast of the town of Kostanay in Kazakhstan, close to the Russian border at 0837 GMT (4:37 a.m. EDT). A contingent of Russian military helicopters and jeeps was dispatched from a base in the city of Orenburg.

"The Foton-M2 mission has been a resounding success and I look forward to seeing the positive impact the results of the experiments will have in the future," said Daniel Sacotte, the European Space Agency's director of human spaceflight for microgravity and exploration programs.

The spherical entry module separated from the other components of the Foton spacecraft after a 45-second burn was conducted high above South Africa to send the capsule on a path into Earth's atmosphere.

After a fall through the atmosphere protected by an ablative head shield, three parachutes were deployed to slow the entry vehicle prior to touchdown. While descending toward the ground under the main parachute, the Foton was to have fired braking rockets to further cushion the impact.

Inside the return capsule was a wide variety of international experiments designed to take advantage of the microgravity environment for research in many scientific disciplines, engineering tests, and technology demonstrations. The Foton was packed with a total of about 1,200 pounds of payloads mainly from European nations.

Scientists accompanied the recovery team to the landing site to retrieve a number of time-critical experiments, while the Foton capsule itself is planned to transported by air to its factory in Samara, Russia. Officials will then analyze the performance of the spacecraft and determine the final results of many of the experiments it carried.

Launched on May 31 aboard a Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the unmanned Foton-M2 craft spent about 16 days in a slightly elliptical orbit with an apogee of about 180 miles, a perigee of around 160 miles, and an inclination of 63 degrees. The Foton completed over 250 orbits during its time in space.

Many of the scientific investigations that found their way to space aboard the Foton were 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 were 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 Techonology Experiment - was planned to 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 aboard 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 was planned to operate for about 40 hours near the end of the flight and was 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 dealt will heat pipes for thermal control systems on future spacecraft.

The largest of the payloads was an automatic fluid physics facility containing four individual experiments. At 390 pounds, FluidPac comprised 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 contained a number of organic samples such as bacteria and fungi cells. Other bacterial spores were 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 tested 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 carried 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 examined how crystals grow in space, analyzed the behavior of molten metal alloys in weightlessness, and showed 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.

This mission marked 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.

"I am extremely pleased that the majority of experiments have performed well," Verga said in a post-landing statement. "My thanks to the ESA Operations Team who has closely followed the mission from the Payload Operations Centre at Esrange in Kiruna, Sweden and our Russian counterparts at Roskosmos, TsSKB-Progress and the Barmin Design Bureau for General Engineering. The hard work and dedication of everyone involved has been crucial in making this mission a success and optimizing the scientific returns from the mission."

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.

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."

         Lost Experiments Fly Again in Successful Soyuz Launch

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