August 8, 2022

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Space botany, cargo arrivals, and autonomous robots: a busy

June 2022 was yet another busy month on the International Space Station (ISS), filled with new spacecraft arrivals, departures, and intriguing research performed by the Expedition 67 crew.

The month kicked off with the departure of the Russian Progress MS-18 (also known as 79P) cargo resupply vehicle from the ISS. Progress undocked at 08:03 UTC on June 1 from the aft docking port of the Russian Zvezda module. After its 214-day mission on the ISS, the Expedition 67 crew filled the Progress spacecraft with trash, which burned up with the spacecraft later that day during its reentry over the Pacific Ocean.

Following the departure of Progress MS-18, the crew began their daily tasks and planned research. The first task for all seven crew members was to measure each other’s body mass. Next, NASA Crew-4 astronauts and Flight Engineers Kjell Lindgren, Bob Hines, and Jessica Watkins performed lab and life support maintenance.

Meanwhile, European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut and Flight Engineer Samantha Cristoforetti worked on a space botany study and monitored changes in her body for the NutrISS study. Roscosmos cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev and Denis Matveev studied future piloting and robotic control techniques while fellow cosmonaut Sergey Korsakov performed maintenance on power systems.

June 1 marked the end of a long stretch of intense work for the Expedition 67 crew, who took a well-deserved day off on June 2 before beginning preparations the next day for the next round of cargo resupply vehicles that were planned to visit the station.

Progress MS-18 departs the ISS. (Credit: NASA)

On Friday, June 3 at 09:32 UTC, Progress MS-20 (81P) launched atop a Soyuz 2.1a rocket from Site 31/6 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, packed full with nearly three tons of supplies, food, and fuel for the ISS and its crew. After launch, the spacecraft completed two orbits of the Earth before docking with the ISS via the aft port of the Zvezda module at 13:02 UTC.

The next cargo resupply mission planned to visit the ISS after Progress was CRS-25, to be flown by a SpaceX Cargo Dragon spacecraft. However, teams identified an issue with Dragon while loading propellant onto the vehicle, leading to a decision to stand down from the targeted launch date to evaluate and solve the issue. The launch of CRS-25 is now expected to occur in July.

After the Progress docking, Kjell Lindgren performed eye exams on Cristoforetti and Hines, Artemyev and Korsakov worked to unpack the Progress spacecraft, and Matveev installed Earth observation gear. Matveev later photographed the interior of the Nauka module using the observation gear for inspection purposes.

On June 7, the Expedition 67 crew primarily focused on research tasks aboard the ISS. Lindgren and Cristoforetti monitored noise levels aboard the station using the Acoustic Diagnostics device, Watkins performed a fit check of the AstroRad radiation vest designed to protect astronauts against solar radiation, and Hines worked on tending to the plants currently being grown for the XROOTS space botany study.

Artemyev and Korsakov continued research on how to maximize the effectiveness of a workout while in microgravity. Matveev performed an Earth photography session before moving on to transferring cargo to and from the Progress MS-19 (80P) cargo resupply spacecraft.

Samantha Cristoforetti works with the Astrobee robots during earlier research in May. (Credit: NASA/ESA)

On June 8, free-flying, cube-shaped robotic devices, named Astrobees, were activated for a full day of automated robotic operations in the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA) Kibo module. Meanwhile, Watkins continued to wear the AstroRad vest and Cristoforetti wore a smart shirt that monitored her cardiovascular health throughout the day. Lindgren and Hines performed station maintenance, Artemyev and Korsakov continued their exercise research, and Matveev worked on communication, ventilation, and video recording systems aboard the ISS.

The next day the crew completed many research and maintenance tasks. Lindgren started the day by swapping the centrifuges inside the Cell Biology Experiment Facility (CBEF) inside the JAXA Kibo module and would move on to performing station maintenance later in the day. Next, Hines and Watkins worked on preparing the Northrop Grumman Cygnus NG-17 cargo resupply spacecraft S.S. Piers Sellers for its departure from the station later in the month. Cristoforetti worked on the NutrISS study and later joined Lindgren with station maintenance. The Expedition 67 cosmonauts spent the day practicing emergency evacuation drills on a computer.

June 10 saw the crew head inside the inflatable Bigelow Aerospace BEAM module attached to the ISS. Inside BEAM, Watkins and Hines worked on performing system checks on BEAM to confirm the health of the module after being attached to the ISS for six years. Additionally, the pair replaced batteries, retrieved cargo, and cleaned vents inside the inflatable module.

The inflation of the Bigelow Aerospace inflatable BEAM module. (Credit: NASA)

Lindgren continued performing research tasks, tending to the Mochii electron microscope while Cristoforetti activated the Astrobees again to test their ability to conduct maneuvers using their smartphone-based video guidance sensors. Matveev and Korsakov continued to offload cargo from the newly-arrived Progress spacecraft while Artemyev performed maintenance.

The crew then took a well-deserved three-day weekend and resumed operations on June 14. Throughout the 14th and the 15th, Hines worked to process blood and urine samples collected from crew members for later analysis. Watkins activated the Astrobees yet again in the Kibo module for another day of autonomous operations. Lindgren performed maintenance on the CBEF facility and later moved over to the Cygnus spacecraft to help Watkins perform maintenance there. Cristoforetti worked on the Fluidics experiment by studying fluid physics inside the Columbus module. Cosmonauts Artemyev and Korsakov continued their exercise research while Matveev researched piloting and robotic techniques for future missions.

Thursday, June 16, saw the crew perform research and maintenance. Watkins worked on stowing components of the Transparent Alloys experiment and worked on returning the Microgravity Science Glovebox to its standard configuration. Lindgren tended to plants currently being grown for the XROOTS experiment while Cristoforetti completed two experiment sessions for the Fluidics study. Hines, and later the rest of the Crew-4 astronauts, performed station maintenance and continued to prepare the Cygnus spacecraft for its departure. The three cosmonauts spent the day investigating how to improve space operations.

As if the day hadn’t already been busy, the Expedition 67 crew and ground teams in Houston and Moscow prepared for a Pre-Determined Debris Avoidance Maneuver, or a PDAM. The June 16th PDAM, performed by the Progress MS-20 spacecraft, occurred at 19:03 UTC and lasted for four minutes, 34 seconds to avoid a piece of debris from the now-destroyed Kosmos 1408 satellite, which was destroyed in November 2021 via a Russian anti-satellite weapons (ASAT) test.

The crew wrapped up the week on June 17 by continuing to prepare Cygnus for its departure and completing research and maintenance tasks. Bob Hines worked to configure the Astrobee robots for another day of autonomous operations inside the Kibo module. Cristoforetti changed a fuel bottle inside the Electrostatic Levitation Furnace and joined Watkins in collecting and processing blood samples. Additionally, Watkins gathered imagery of landmarks on Earth. Lindgren performed maintenance on a U.S. spacesuit helmet and later moved to Cygnus to continue packing it for its departure.

On the Russian side of the ISS, Artemyev tested nanosatellites before their upcoming deployment and performed a physical fitness evaluation on Cristoforetti. Matveev serviced a Russian oxygen generator while Korsakov performed maintenance inside Nauka.

On Monday, June 20, NASA and Northrop Grumman teams planned to fire the Cygnus spacecraft’s engine for five minutes to assess the ability of Cygnus to reboost the ISS’ orbit in the future. However, five seconds into the planned five-minute burn, the attempt was aborted. Another attempt occurred later in the week on Saturday, June 25, with the spacecraft’s engine successfully completing the full burn, demonstrating Cygnus’ abilities.

On June 21, the NASA and ESA astronauts among the Expedition 67 crew scanned one another’s veins using the Ultrasound 2 device. Later in the day, Hines and Cristoforetti spun blood samples in a centrifuge inside the Human Research Facility. After the samples were spun, they were stored in a science freezer for later analysis. Watkins worked in the station’s pantry and performed maintenance on station modules. Lindgren configured and charged a high-definition 3D holographic headset, and later started a computer program that demonstrates how this could be used for augmented-reality communication on Earth and in space. Artemyev and Matveev studied each other’s digestive systems following a morning meal while Korsakov worked in Nauka, testing the new European robotic arm.

Wednesday, June 22, saw Hines work on the XROOTS plant experiment while also photographing station modules for inspection. Lindgren continued to test the holographic headset, while Cristoforetti and Watkins joined forces to inspect and clean hatches on the U.S. modules, as well as to perform basic maintenance. Cosmonauts Artemyev and Matveev once again scanned their digestive systems, and Korsakov continued to perform checks of the new European robotic arm.

The next day, Lindgren studied how living in space for extended periods of time speeds up aging-like symptoms in humans for the Phospho-Aging study. Cristoforetti and Watkins continued to perform maintenance on the station’s various research systems,  and Hines, alongside Lindgren, completed training to retain knowledge on SpaceX Crew Dragon operations. Additionally, Hines and other crew members filmed themselves working in space to assist NASA with training astronauts scheduled to fly on future missions. ISS commander Artemyev and Flight Engineer Korsakov monitored their cardiac activity while Korsakov unpacked Russian cargo.

June 24 saw Lindgren continue to perform research for the Phospho-Aging study. Watkins tended to the plants growing for the XROOTS space gardening study, Hines activated the Astrobee robots in the Kibo module and Cristoforetti serviced plumbing components in the U.S. Tranquility module. Artemyev worked to prepare a camera for an Earth observation study and Matveev worked to move air and water from Progress MS-20 to the station. Korsakov completed testing operations of the new European robotic arm.

The Expedition 67 crew with fresh fruit that was delivered aboard Progress MS-20. (Credit: NASA)

After the weekend, the crew of Expedition 67 readied up for the final week of ISS operations in June. Monday, June 27 was primarily spent readying the Cygnus cargo resupply module for its departure from the ISS the next day. Hines and Watkins worked to wrap up cargo duties inside Cygnus with Cristoforetti joining later in the day. Following the completion of their duties with Cygnus, Hines serviced a U.S. spacesuit while Cristoforetti and Watkins continued filming themselves working in space for future astronauts. Cristoforetti would finish her long day by swapping batteries in the Astrobee robots and performing maintenance on the NanoRacks Bishop Airlock.

Lindgren worked on performing research for the XROOTS study by starting another plant growing session. Cosmonauts Matveev and Korsakov performed cardiac research with Matveev later working on nanosatellites. ISS commander Artemyev performed maintenance on the Russian side of the ISS.

The next day, June 28, the NG-17 Cygnus cargo resupply spacecraft successfully departed the ISS after being detached from the nadir – or Earth-facing – Common Berthing Mechanism (CBM) of the Unity module and released by the Canadarm2 robotic arm. Cygnus was released at 11:07 UTC, completing a four-month-long mission to bring a plethora of science and supplies to the ISS. Cygnus later burned up upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere the following day, June 29.

The next cargo resupply mission planned to visit the ISS is the aforementioned NASA/SpaceX CRS-25 mission, which is currently targeted for no earlier than July 18.

Despite the departure of Cygnus, the science and daily operations on the ISS continued unabated. Lindgren and Hines configured the NanoRacks Bishop airlock on Tuesday by removing cargo from inside the airlock. The duo replaced the cargo with the trash that will be released to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. Additionally, Lindgren and Watkins worked on the Behavioral Core Measures space psychology study, and Cristoforetti worked to swap samples inside the Electrostatic Levitation Furnace. The three Russian cosmonauts continued to perform station maintenance, work with nanosatellites, and take images of the Earth’s surface.

On June 29, Lindgren and Hines trained to diagnose and treat medical conditions without the guidance and assistance of ground controllers in Houston and Moscow. During training, Hines performed ultrasound exams of Lindgren’s kidneys and bladder for the Autonomous Medical Officer Support (AMOS) demonstration. Watkins and Cristoforetti continued to place trash inside the NanoRacks Bishop airlock for later disposal. Roscosmos cosmonaut Artemyev investigated how future crews might pilot and operate spacecraft or robots on future planetary missions. Matveev continued to work with nanosatellites and Korsakov worked on electronics and computer maintenance.

On June 30, Hines tended to the XROOTS space botany study garden and later joined Lindgren and Watkins to prepare the NanoRacks Bishop airlock for its first trash disposal. Meanwhile, Cristoforetti worked on the Microgravity Science Glovebox and performed maintenance on components for the Intelligent Glass Optics space physics study. The Expedition 67 cosmonauts spent the day performing human health research experiments on themselves.

Many of the experiments and research facilities used during June will continue to be used throughout July and months to come. Additionally, cargo resupply spacecraft are set to launch and deliver cargo to the ISS and the Expedition 67 crew in July.

(Lead image: The ISS as seen by Thomas Pesquet inside Crew Dragon Endeavour. Credit: NASA/Thomas Pesquet)