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Oldest and Most Experienced US Female Astronaut Peggy Whitson Sets another Record in Orbit

About 27,000 pieces of orbital debris currently are being tracked by ground stations on Earth, according to Britain's Royal Astronomical Society

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U.S. astronaut Peggy Whitson, member of the main crew of the expedition to the International Space Station, speaks with her relatives prior the launch of Soyuz MS-3 space ship at the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Nov. 17, 2016. VOA

Nov 20, 2016: The International Space Station has gained three new residents, including the oldest and most experienced female astronaut ever to orbit the world.

A Russian Soyuz capsule carrying the fresh crew docked Saturday at the space station, 400 kilometers above Earth. The new arrivals at the orbital research laboratory — American astronaut Peggy Whitson, French astronaut Thomas Pesquet and Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy — joined the three men already on board, one American and two Russians.

The Soyuz-FG rocket booster with Soyuz MS-03 space ship carrying a new crew to the International Space Station blasts off at the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Nov. 18, 2016. VOA
The Soyuz-FG rocket booster with Soyuz MS-03 space ship carrying a new crew to the International Space Station blasts off at the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Nov. 18, 2016. VOA

Whitson, who will be the mission commander once her team settles in orbit, already holds the record for time spent in space by a woman — over 400 days during her various missions. Over the course of the next six months, she will celebrate her 57th birthday in the weightless conditions of Earth orbit, as she extends her time-in-space record every day.

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Before their launch Thursday from Kazakhstan, Pesquet paid tribute to Whitson’s leadership and seniority, but said he was carrying with him a small piece of a meteorite from Mars that will become “the most experienced space traveler there is in the world.”

The French astronaut, making his first spaceflight, said his intention was to show that human and robotic explorers of outer space “are all working together.” He intends to bring the stone back to Earth next year and place it aboard a Mars rover for a return flight to its home planet.

Third space flight

Whitson, a biochemist by training, is making her third flight to the space station. Prior to this mission, no woman older than 55 had flown in space.

Novitskiy is making his second spaceflight.

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The new crew’s arrival at the space station Saturday coincided with the 47th anniversary of mankind’s second landing on the moon — on November 19, 1969, by American astronauts Charles Conrad and Alan Bean.

The past few days have been busy with space-related activities.

Chinese astronauts Jing Haipeng (left, in blue) and Chen Dong, who landed safely aboard China's Shenzhou 11 spacecraft's re-entry capsule in the northern region of Inner Mongolia, arrive in Beijing, China, Nov. 18, 2016. VOA
Chinese astronauts Jing Haipeng (left, in blue) and Chen Dong, who landed safely aboard China’s Shenzhou 11 spacecraft’s re-entry capsule in the northern region of Inner Mongolia, arrive in Beijing, China, Nov. 18, 2016. VOA

As Whitson and her crew were heading into orbit, two Chinese astronauts touched down safely in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia after a successful monthlong mission in orbit, demonstrating the progress China has made in its quest to establish a permanent space station.

Major General Jing Haipeng and Colonel Chen Dong spent 33 days in orbit, a new record for Chinese manned space missions. They lived aboard the Tiangong space lab, which is a prototype for a permanent orbital laboratory that China hopes to establish by 2020.

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While in orbit, the Chinese astronauts tested new hardware for use in space, including a remotely operated robotic arm to transfer cargo, and also released a microsatellite to fly around the Tiangong lab, inspecting and photographing it.

The small device also is said to be equipped to divert any space debris on a collision course with the main spacecraft.

In this photo taken with long time exposure the Soyuz-FG rocket booster with Soyuz MS-03 space ship carrying a new crew to the International Space Station blasts off at the Russian leased Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Nov. 18, 2016. VOA
In this photo taken with long time exposure the Soyuz-FG rocket booster with Soyuz MS-03 space ship carrying a new crew to the International Space Station blasts off at the Russian leased Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Nov. 18, 2016. VOA

First satellite launch

Since the first satellite was launched from Earth into orbit — the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1, in 1957 — space debris has been accumulating steadily. Some scientists estimate up to 100 million pieces of space junk are currently floating around Earth, posing an increasing threat to the safety of both manned and unmanned satellites high above.

About 27,000 pieces of orbital debris currently are being tracked by ground stations on Earth, according to Britain’s Royal Astronomical Society, which met Friday in London to discuss the growing problem. Many bits of debris are too small to track accurately, but they nevertheless pose a risk to any other objects they encounter.

[bctt tweet=” A weather satellite called “America’s most advanced eye in the sky” was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida.” username=””]

“Tackling the problem of space debris is one of humankind’s greatest environmental challenges, but also perhaps the one that is the least known,” said Hugh Lewis, head of astronautics research at the University of Southampton in England.

“Every day we use and rely on services provided by satellites without ever realizing how vulnerable they are,” Lewis added.

Satellite launches

Meanwhile, the European space program launched four more Galileo satellites this week, moving a step closer to completing its own satellite-based navigation system, which will compete against the U.S. Global Positioning System, or GPS.

The four satellites — the most the European Union has sent aloft at one time — were carried into orbit Thursday by an Ariane rocket launched from a spaceport in French Guiana.

The upper stage and payload fairing containing the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-Series R (GOES-R) on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket is shown at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, Nov. 18, VOA
The upper stage and payload fairing containing the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-Series R (GOES-R) on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket is shown at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, Nov. 18, VOA

And as astronaut Whitson’s crew was maneuvering toward docking Saturday with the International Space Station, the U.S. space agency NASA was preparing to launch another rocket carrying a new weather satellite into orbit.

Also Saturday, a weather satellite called “America’s most advanced eye in the sky” was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The $1 billion satellite, part of an $11 billion effort to revolutionize forecasting, will be able to relay more frequent and higher-definition images of severe weather patterns, the U.S. space agency said.

The Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R Series (GOES-R) spacecraft launched Saturday is “really a quantum leap above any satellite NOAA has ever flown,” Stephen Volz, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s director of satellites, told The Associated Press. (VOA)

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NASA to Open Parts of ISS to More Commercial Opportunities Including Private Astronaut Missions

NASA pays about $80 million per seat, a price that it is working to trim to $50 million per seat, to send its astronauts

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NASA plans to build a space outpost in lunar orbit that can relay astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024. VOA

NASA will open parts of the International Space Station to more commercial opportunities, it announced Friday, allowing companies to use the space station’s facilities in a number of ways, including private astronaut missions.

The space agency has balked at commercial ventures in the past, but the cost of operating the space station, which is one of the agency’s greatest expenses, currently runs $3 billion to $4 billion a year, or more than $8 million a day. NASA leadership has made it clear that the agency wants to eventually transition control of the space station and its region of space, low Earth orbit, to the private sector.

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FILE – A photo provided by NASA TV shows a cargo ship as it arrives at the International Space Station, Dec. 13, 2016. VOA

“What this is, is an investment in the future for demand for low-Earth platforms” said Mike Read, the manager of Commercial Space Utilization at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, told VOA News. “What we want to do is leverage the station and try to enable others to turn a business model … while we have the infrastructure of the space station.”

By handing control of the space station over to commercial ventures, NASA could have more money to pursue more ambitious missions, such as building a new space station around the moon and sending humans back to the lunar surface.

In late 2018, the agency selected 12 companies to study the potential growth of a low-Earth orbit economy and how to best stimulate demand for human space flight. (Low-Earth orbit means altitudes below 2,000 km or 1,240 miles.) This group brainstormed ways companies could turn a profit at the space station, and the members decided that allowing corporations to build and market their products using space station resources would help ignite the economy NASA is seeking to build on.

But getting to space is not cheap.

Private astronaut missions will be limited to two flights per year, or about 12 astronauts per year, and come at a significant cost. The cost of travel and accommodations will have to be picked up by the private sector.

nasa, private astronaut mission
FILE – The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule is pictured, March 3, 2019, about 20 meters (66 feet) from the International Space Station’s Harmony module. VOA

As of now, the only ways to get to the space station are spacecraft developed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Boeing, so “whatever prices Boeing and SpaceX set is on them,” said Jeff DeWit, NASA’s chief financial officer.

NASA pays about $80 million per seat, a price that it is working to trim to $50 million per seat, to send its astronauts.

Apart from the cost of getting there, companies hoping to work on the space station will have to pay to stay there: One night’s stay would be about $35,000 for one person, DeWit said.

“It’s now up to you to use your creativity — your ingenuity — and figure out how you can generate potential revenue,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration.

ALSO READ: NASA: Skywatchers will be Able to See Jupiter’s Largest Moons Using Just Binoculars

‘Learning experience’

“This is the beginning of us actively starting open dialogue with the industry to figure out how we can open up space to commercial activities, where revenue can be generated from private sector companies. … This is going to be a growing and learning experience for both [sides].”

But NASA’s Read points out a key element to this new venture: “We are a government bureaucracy that is trying to enable development of a new economy. That’s pretty different,” he said. (VOA)