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The approximate descent trajectory of the Bion-M No. 1 spacecraft.
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After a nearly month-long orbital flight, the descent module of the Russian Bion-M No. 1 satellite carrying animals and biological experiments returned to Earth. The touchdown took place in Southern Russia in the morning local time on Sunday, May 19, 2013, and the descent module was quickly detected by search teams.
Preparations for landing
On May 14, 2013, the search team of Russia's Central Military District, which just completed the successful recovery of the Soyuz TMA-07M spacecraft, was ordered to move to the Orenburg Region in southern Russia to support the landing of Bion M No. 1 on the morning of May 19. A total of seven Mi-8 helicopters, along with An-12 and An-26 fixed wing aircraft, a pair of ground vehicles and 150 members of military personnel were expected to participate in the operation. According to RIA Novosti news agency, Orenburg's regional aviation rescue base and Volga aviation rescue center would joined the effort.
A special homing radio signal on the reentry module of the spacecraft was designed to help search and rescue team to locate the capsule.
On May 17, mission control in Korolev announced that the landing of Bion-M No. 1 was scheduled for May 19 at 07:12 Moscow Time near Orenburg (11:12 p.m. EDT on Saturday, May 18). According to RIA Novosti news agency, the landing point was expected to be 82 kilometers north of Orenburg, near the town of Bulanovo (which was misspelled in the report as Buranovo) on the border with the Russian republic of Bashkiria (Bashkortostan). An oval-shaped landing area would extend 180 kilometers along the descent trajectory and 20 kilometers to both sides of the flight path.
Landing on May 19
According to mission control in Korolev, the same propulsion system that was used to insert the spacecraft into its operational 575-kilometer orbit also performed a braking maneuver one hour before touchdown. The engine firing designed to push the spacecraft off its orbit lasted 381 seconds.
Shortly before separation between the descent module and the service module of the spacecraft, power supply to some of the scientific instruments in the capsule were switched from solar panels to batteries in the descent module. The power supply to those experiments would reportedly last up to 24 hours after the landing, giving search teams plenty of time to locate the capsule and retrieve all biological organisms. (646) With the landing planned around sunrise, most of the daylight time would be available for search and recovery operations.
According to mission control, the opening of the parachute of the capsule at an altitude of 9 kilometers took place at 07:01 Moscow Time on May 19 (11:01 p.m. EDT on May 18). Just moments before the touchdown 11 minutes later, specialized soft-landing engines on the capsule fired softening the landing. A cluster of soft-landing engines was attached to the parachute assembly.
On the morning of May 19, mission control published official coordinates of the landing site as 51 degrees 53 minutes North latitude and 54 degrees 20 minutes East longitude, which matched a point 54 kilometers west of Orenburg and 10 kilometers east of town of Perevolotsky. This information showed that the capsule landed slightly short of its expected location, but within a possible deviation area.
First post-flight inspection of science experiments was to be conducted at a climate-controlled field laboratory deployed near the landing site. By the end of the day, all animals would have to be delivered to Moscow's Institute of Medical and Biological Problems of Space flight, IMBP, where additional evaluation would be conducted during the night, before animals had a chance to re-adapt for the conditions of gravity. Along with Russian scientists, specialists from USA, France, Germany, Kazakhstan and Ukraine were awaiting the arrival of experiments to IMBP, Interfax news agency reported.
According to RIA Novosti, the Il-76 transport plane was scheduled to fly biological experiments from Orenburg airport to Moscow during the evening on May 19.
At the landing site, the recovery team had six hours allocated by the spacecraft manufacturer, TsSKB Progress, for the removal of the scientific gear, however the actual was completed in just three hours. In the first step, biological experiments were removed from the interior of the descent module. Technicians then rolled the capsule on its side to access and dismantle payloads on the exterior of the vehicle. The spacecraft was then picked up by an all-terrain vehicle and transported to the airfield.
On the evening of May 19, Interfax reported that all Mongolian gerbils and more than half of mice onboard the spacecraft did not survive the flight. The loss of gerbils was a result of the equipment failure (apparently in the Kontur-BM experiment), Vladimir Sychev, the head of a laboratory at IMBP told the agency. However all geckos and all other biological organisms onboard Bion-M No.1 did survive and, in practical terms, all but one experiment onboard Bion-M No. 1 worked as planned, Sychev added.
However on May 20, RIA Novosti quoted a chief scientist at IMBP Evgeni Il'in as saying that all fish (Oreochromis mosambicus) onboard German-sponsored Omegahab experiment also died as a result of the technical failure in the aquarium. Il'in also explained that a single yet-to-be-determined failure in the experiment containing gerbils (Kontur-BM) led its control system to turn off power to the entire unit interrupting oxygen and food supply, light and ventilation. According to Il'in, a special commission will be formed to investigate the failure.
In the experiment containing mice, the food-supply system failed immediately (after the launch) leading to the loss of 15 mice (in a section of the MLZh unit). Other technical failures in various units of the experiment left only 16 out of 45 mice onboard Bion-M N. 1 alive (by the end of the flight), Il'in said. Preliminary visual inspection showed mice chambers overfilled with food material, indicating technical problems with the feeding system.
With nominal performance of the hardware, the natural death of animals was not expected to exceed five percent of the population, according to Il'in. However 15 surviving mice was still enough to gather scientifically sound data. Il'in confirmed that all 15 geckos (Chondrodactylus turneri), snails and microorganisms did survive the flight.
Out of 16 surviving mice, five were left alive for behavioral and cognitive studies, while 11 other survivors were put to sleep in the first night after landing and dissected for the evaluation of their tissue and organ changes during the flight by a joint Russian-American team scientists specialized in cell biology, biochemistry and other related fields of science. Their analysis lasted from 19:00 Moscow Time until 8:00 a.m. next morning (May 20).
Despite all the failures of the scientific hardware, Il'in characterized the latest Bion mission as an overall success. Four insurance companies led by the Russian firm OAO Sogaz and underwritten by a group of international insurers via Aon plc of London, agreed. In case of a complete failure of the mission, the spacecraft was ensured for 3 billion rubles.
On May 22, IMBP conducted a press-conference on the results of the Bion mission, where Sychev revealed that telemetry from the spacecraft had shown the failure of the Kontur-BM experiment (with gerbils) while the flight had still been in progress, but his team could only confirm the loss of animals after the landing. For some unknown reasons, sensors apparently registered high concentrations of oxygen in the Kontur-BM unit (creating a potentially explosive mixture) and turned off its supply.
Scientists stressed that the newly developed Bion-M spacecraft itself functioned flawlessly during its 30-day mission, despite its launch 16 years after the last mission of the previous-generation Bion satellite. It was the first month-long flight for an automated biological satellite. It was also the first Russian attempt to fly mice in space, instead of rats and monkeys, which were previously used in Bion missions.
By the end of the day on May 22, IBMP also posted its first press-release and photos on the Bion-M No. 1 landing. According to the institute, experiments arrived to its labs in Moscow within 12 hours after landing (later characterized as a record and a major success for a time-sensitive research).
Also on May 22, researchers from the German Space Agency, DLR, reported that the Omegahab experiment, which was removed from the capsule 1.5 after landing, no longer contained fish, but only shells of dead snails. Remnants of the Ceratophyllum plant showed signs either low light or its complete absence, the statement said. The only survivor of the experiment was microscopic algae, which showed good physiological condition and the accurate gravitational orientation. According to the telemetry, the closed-loop ecosystem worked well during the first 12 days of the mission, after which, oxygen concentration produced by Ceratophyllum plants and consumed by the fish, fell down.
A preliminary investigation pointed toward the failure of the lighting system. However even in darkness algae was able to switch its metabolism mode and survive. With available telemetry and video information providing data during 12 days of normal operation of the Omegahab, the experiment can be considered partially successful, the statement said.
As of April 2009, the second Bion-M satellite was expected to fly a mission lasting up to six months in 2013. The third satellite could fly as early as 2016.
However by June 2011, the mission slipped until 2015 and the flight duration was no longer specified. After the return of the first satellite, Roskosmos and IMBP officials said that the Russian space program included a follow-on Bion-M satellite (expected to fly around 2017), along with preliminary plans to conduct experiments with animals on the Science and Power Modules, NEM, of the Russian segment of the ISS.
In June 2013, Ravil Akhmetov, a top official at TsSKB Progress told the ITAR-TASS news agency that Bion-M No. 2 would likely carry fish and mice during its mission between 2015 and 2017. On June 27, at a press-conference dedicated to the activities of TsSKB Progress in the first half of 2013, the head of the company Aleksandr Kirilin said that the launch of the second Bion-M satellite had been scheduled for 2016.
Next chapter: Vozvrat-MKA spacecraft
Known landing milestones in the Bion-M No. 1 mission, according to mission control:
Bion-M No. 1 mission at a glance:
Article and graphics by Anatoly Zak; Last update: June 27, 2013
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An aerial view of the landing site. Credit: Oleg Voloshin / IMBP
The descent capsule of Bion-M No.1 after landing. Credit: Oleg Voloshin / IMBP
Technicians handling capsule to access payloads. View from the side of a parachute container. Credit: Oleg Voloshin / IMBP
Technicians work to open the main hatch into the interior of the capsule. Credit: Oleg Voloshin / IMBP
The descent module of the Bion-M No. 1 spacecraft at the landing site. Credit: REN TV
Experiments are removed from the descent module of the Bion-M No. 1 shortly after landing. Credit: REN TV
An experiment aimed to test a controversial theory of "panspermia" claiming the possibility of life spreading by comets and asteroids, carried microorganisms embedded into the material on the exterior of Bion M No. 1. Credit: Oleg Voloshin / IMBP
An initial post-flight analysis of experiments in the Bion-M mission was conducted at a special tent deployed near the landing site. Credit: REN TV
Search and rescue helicopters at the landing site of Bion-M No. 1 on May 19, 2013. Credit: REN TV
Removal of external payloads. Credit: Oleg Voloshin / IMBP
Removal of mice from MLZh unit at the landing site. Credit: Oleg Voloshin / IMBP
Post-landing operations inside the research tent at the landing site. Credit: Oleg Voloshin / IMBP