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Soyuz MS-14 completes pilotless ISS mission
From August 22 to September 7, 2019, the Soyuz MS-14, carrying a robot and other cargo instead of crew, completed a successful test mission to the International Space Station, ISS. However, the first docking attempt between the pilotless vehicle and the, ISS, had to be called off at the last minute due to an apparent problem in the Kurs rendezvous system.
Soyuz MS-14 mission at a glance:
Why pilotless flight?
On August 22, 2019, the Soyuz MS-14 spacecraft began a flight to the International Space Station. It was the first mission of the Soyuz transport vehicle without a crew in 33 years and the first ever pilotless mission in the Soyuz series heading to the ISS. The Soyuz MS-14 mission flew without a crew in order to finally certify the Soyuz-2-1a rocket for piloted missions, after a launch failure in 2015.
The failed launch of the Soyuz-2-1a rocket with the Progress M-27M cargo ship triggered an extensive investigation into the interaction of the launch vehicle and its payloads. Flight dynamics experts suspected potential structural problems in the joint stack of the transport spacecraft and the third stage of the Soyuz-2-1a rocket. Because the lives of cosmonauts were at stake, Roskosmos adopted a very conservative and gradual transfer program from Soyuz-FG to Soyuz-2-1a with many tests and extensive analysis along the way. The transition process also included a test launch of the Soyuz MS spacecraft on a Soyuz-2-1a rocket without crew. Most importantly, it would test for the first time the interaction of the digital flight control system aboard the Soyuz 2-1a rocket with the analogue-based Emergency Escape System, SAS, of the Soyuz MS spacecraft.
The Soyuz MS-14 mission was previously scheduled for liftoff on August 23 and September 4, 2019. It was later planned for September 12, 2019, but around January of that year, it was set for August 22. On February 25, 2019, that launch date was approved by Roskosmos with the official ISS flight manifest (INSIDER CONTENT).
Originally, the spacecraft was expected to fly a 12-day mission, targeting the landing on September 3 (in case of a launch on August 22), however by the end of July, the undocking of the vehicle from the station and landing of its Descent Module was re-scheduled for September 7.
Roskosmos used the opportunity for its first pilotless two-way mission to the ISS to fly a humanoid robot named Fedor (INSIDER CONTENT) inside the ship's the Descent Module, which would normally carry the crew. According to NASA, a total of 1,450 pounds of supplies for the 60th long-duration expedition aboard the ISS would be carried inside Soyuz MS-14.
Preparations for the mission
The preparations for the Soyuz MS-14 launch began in Baikonur on May 15, with the unloading of the booster stages of the Soyuz-2-1a rocket inside the vehicle assembly building at Site 31. The assembly of the launch vehicle began on June 7 with bolting together of the two sections comprising the core booster of the second stage. In the next 24 hours, four boosters of the first stage were clustered around the core booster.
On July 23, the Fedor robot, intended to fly aboard Soyuz MS-14, was delivered to Baikonur and the next day, the spacecraft itself was sent to the vacuum chamber for leak checks. The testing of the ship's solar panels was completed on August 5.
On August 8, the meeting of technical management cleared Soyuz MS-14 for fueling and loading of pressurized gases, which was completed by August 12, when the spacecraft was returned back to the processing building at Site 254 for final operations.
On August 13, Soyuz MS-14 was attached to a ring adapter serving as an interface between the spacecraft and the launch vehicle. On August 15, specialists conducted the final visual inspection of the spacecraft before it was rolled inside its protective fairing on the same day.
Soyuz MS-14 lifts off
A Soyuz-2-1a rocket carrying the pilotless Soyuz MS-14 transport spacecraft lifted off from Site 31 in Baikonur on August 22, 2019, at 06:38:31.987 Moscow Time. (It will be 11:38 p.m. EDT on August 21.)
At the time of the Soyuz MS-14 launch, the International Space Station was flying over Africa, near the border between Chad and Sudan.
The rocket followed a standard ascent profile and the separation of Soyuz MS-14 from the third stage of the launch vehicle took place at 06:47 Moscow Time. According to the Russian mission control, the Soyuz-2-1a rocket performed perfectly during the launch, delivering the Soyuz MS-14 spacecraft into an initial orbit with the following parameters:
The Soyuz MS-14 spacecraft was seen firing its attitude control thrusters extensively, which is not in itself unusual, minutes before the failed rendezvous attempt was aborted on August 24, 2019.
Following a two-day trip to the station, Soyuz MS-14 was scheduled to dock at the MIM-2 Poisk module, a part of the Russian Segment, on August 24, at 08:31 Moscow Time (1:31 a.m. EDT). As usual, all the rendezvous and docking operations were planned in the fully automated mode, however, unlike the operations with the Progress cargo ships, the ISS crew had no TORU remote-control system available to take over rendezvous operations in case of a problem during the automated mode. Instead, cosmonaut Aleksei Ovchinin and Aleksandr Skvortsov aboard the Zvezda Service Module were on stand by to call off the docking in case of major issues in the rendezvous process.
They had to do precisely that when after a seemingly normal rendezvous and a flyaround of the station, Soyuz MS-14 had reached a distance of around 200 meters from the outpost but then evidently struggled to lock in on its destination docking port. Cameras on the station and the transport ship showed the Soyuz swiveling from side to side during the final approach, forcing mission control in Korolev to cancel the docking attempt when the two vehicles had come as close as 60 meters from each other. According to NASA, Aleksei Ovchinin issued the abort command at 12:36 a.m. Central Time (08:36 Moscow Time) or around five minutes after the two vehicles were supposed to dock.
Soyuz MS-14 then began moving away from the outpost, but the cosmonauts and flight controllers were heard discussing problems tracking the exact position and the status of the spacecraft, even though the station's cameras continued showing the transport ship slowly receding from view for around an hour after the aborted rendezvous. Ground specialists and the cosmonauts were also heard discussing an apparent attempt by Soyuz MS-14 to repeat the rendezvous attempt.
According to NASA, after the failed docking, Soyuz MS-14 entered an orbit above and behind the ISS, which would bring the spacecraft back into the vicinity of the outpost 24 hours later. However, within an hour after the failed docking, mission control in Korolev told the ISS crew that the next docking attempt would not be made until at least August 25 after a series of tests. Head of flight operations in Korolev Vladimir Soloviev informed the cosmonauts that ground specialists had narrowed down the potential root cause of the failure during docking to a "bad signal amplifier" in the Kurs-P avionics system aboard the station. Soloviev instructed the crew to swap the suspected amplifier for a new one and then conduct a test of the Kurs-P system. Provided the ongoing analysis confirmed the initial failure scenario and the in-orbit tests went successfully, another rendezvous attempt could be made in around 48 hours, between 08:00 and 09:00 Moscow Time on August 26. Soloviev asked the crew members whether they knew where the components in question were located to which the cosmonauts said that they remembered it approximately but asked for reference photos to be sent to them. Mission control assured the cosmonauts that detailed documentation and instructions would be uploaded to them.
At 10:00 Moscow Time on August 24, members of the State Commission overseeing the mission and chaired by Roskosmos Head Dmitry Rogozin convened at the mission control in Korolev to plan further actions.
Based on the decisions of the State Commission, Rogozin then announced that on August 26, the crew of Soyuz MS-13 spacecraft would manually redock their vehicle from the aft port of the Zvezda Service Module to the Poisk MIM2 module, where Soyuz MS-14 failed to dock. The redocking of Soyuz MS-13 was expected to take place between 07:00 and 08:00 Moscow Time.
Then, on August 27, (between 08:00 and 09:00 Moscow Time) the second attempt would be made to dock the Soyuz MS-14 spacecraft to the station (this time, to the aft port of the service module, instead of its original destination), Rogozin said. Unlike the Kurs-P rendezvous system on the MIM2 module, the identical equipment on the aft port of the Zvezda was operating without problems. According to the new plan, the replacement of the failed component of the Kurs-P system aboard MIM2 module was postponed until after the manual re-docking of the Soyuz MS-13 spacecraft to MIM2. The latest plan would provide plenty of time to test the suspected Kurs-P system on the MIM2 before and after repairs.
Rogozin also announced that Soyuz MS-14 had been performing a nominal spin-stabilized flight and that on August 25, Aleksandr Skvortsov had been scheduled to perform an extra docking practice before his attempt to manually re-dock Soyuz MS-13. He would probably use an onboard simulator for the exercise. Around the same time, the TASS news agency quoted Evgeniy Dodurov, the Executive Director of the company that developed the Fedor robot, as saying that their device had been in sleep mode aboard Soyuz MS-14.
ISS configuration before the arrival of the Soyuz MS-14 spacecraft.
On the morning of August 25, Roskosmos announced that the Soyuz MS-13 spacecraft would undock from the Zvezda Service Module, SM, at 06:34 Moscow Time and re-dock at the MIM2-Poisk module at 06:59 Moscow Time on August 26 (11:59 p.m. EDT on August 25). The Soyuz commander Aleksandr Skvortsov will be at the controls of spacecraft, with his crew mates Luca Parmitano and Andrew Morgan providing assistance inside the Descent Module, during the during the 25-minute flyaround of the station, Roskosmos said. Because the docking at Poisk will be conducted under manual control, Soyuz MS-13 will not need the Kurs-P rendezvous system aboard MIM2. In preparation for re-docking, the ISS crew began activation of systems aboard Soyuz MS-13.
It will be the first re-docking of the Soyuz since August 2015, when Soyuz TMA-16M had to move from MIM2 Poisk to Zvezda.
In its turn, Soyuz MS-14 was scheduled to dock at Zvezda at 06:12 Moscow Time on August 27 (11:12 p.m. EDT on August 26), Roskosmos said. According to NASA, tests of the Kurs-P system on the aft end of the Zvezda showed it to be in perfect working order. However, there was no immediate official confirmation of the flawless performance of the rendezvous system aboard Soyuz MS-14.
By the middle of the day on August 25, Head of Roskosmos Dmitry Rogozin announced that the Soyuz MS-13 crew had successfully completed an exercise simulating undocking operations and had now been ready for the actual operations on August 26, starting with the hatch closure at 03:30 Moscow Time. On the same day, mission control also planned an orbit correction maneuver at 08:30 Moscow Time to prepare for the docking of Soyuz MS-14. Around the same time, Roskosmos announced that mission control tested the Motion Control System, SUD, of the Soyuz MS-13 spacecraft which would be responsible for re-docking operations. Also, during the night from August 24 to August 25, ISS partners approved the final schedule of the re-docking operations, Roskosmos said.
Following the successful re-docking of the Soyuz MS-13 spacecraft from the Zvezda Service Module, SM, to the MIM2-Poisk module at 06:59 Moscow Time on August 26, 2019, the stage was set for the second docking attempt of the Soyuz MS-14 spacecraft the next day. According to the TASS news agency, during its approach to the MIM2 Poisk module, Soyuz MS-13 was not able to acquire signal from the Kurs-P rendezvous system on Poisk, confirming the theory that the problem that had earlier prevented the automated docking of the Soyuz MS-14 spacecraft was indeed on the Poisk's side, therefore giving more confidence to mission control that the subsequent attempt to dock Soyuz MS-14 to the aft port on the Zvezda would be successful.
During the autonomous rendezvous of the Soyuz MS-14, Russian mission control in Korolev planned a total of six maneuvers with the transport ship's engines:
The Russian mission control in Korolev had the following work timeline on August 27:
This time, everything seemingly went without a hitch, as the spacecraft approached the station and began the planned fly-around of the outpost to align itself with the aft port on the service module.
The transport ship then spent a few seconds in station-keeping position near the ISS, before initiating the flawless final approach and docking at 11:08 p.m. EDT on August 26, according to NASA (06:08 Moscow Time on August 27).
In next few minutes, mission control confirmed that the docking probe on the Soyuz MS-14 had fully retracted and, after few more minutes, the hooks on the periphery of the docking ports were also closed completing the hard mate between the two vehicles.
According to Roskosmos, Soyuz MS-14 delivered 670 kilograms of dry cargo to the ISS.
Summary of cargo carried to the ISS aboard Soyuz MS-14:
Cosmonaut Aleksei Ovchinin gives a screwdriver to a robot inside the MIM2 Poisk module of the International Space Station. The machine remained tethered to the interior wall during the experiment on August 30, 2019.
After its arrival to the ISS aboard Soyuz MS-14 on August 27, the robot Fedor remained inside the Descent Module of the unpiloted crew vehicle for the next two days. The work started with testing of a special exoskeleton suit and a virtual-reality helmet connected to cameras of the robot and designed for the remote control of the robot in the so-called "avatar" mode. On August 28, cosmonaut Aleksandr Skvortsov tried on the suit, which was plugged into a laptop computer.
On August 29, cosmonauts transferred the robot aboard the ISS and placed it inside the MIM-2 Poisk module for a series of tests, which started the next day.
Initially, cosmonauts had trouble activating the machine, prompting cosmonaut Aleksei Ovchinin to suggest hitting the stubborn power button on the robot's shoulder with a hammer, while ground controllers considered replacing batteries powering the machine. Fortunately, after 10 or 15 attempts, Ovchinin was finally able to activate the robot the normal way.
Roskosmos then published a series of photographs on the behalf of Fedor showing various movements of the robot's arms and handling of objects, such as a screwdriver and a wrench. The robot was also reported to be able to plug electrical connectors. Skvortsov guided the movements of the robot from the Zvezda Service Module. Ovchinin monitored the operations inside Poisk and tried some interaction with the robot. Ovchinin did confirm that the robot had been moving its fingers. On August 31, cosmonauts reported that the robot had successfully activated a power drill and wiped its hands with a towel.
However, by September 3, the robot was packed into the Descent Module of the Soyuz MS-14 spacecraft for a trip back to Earth, quietly completing the high-profile experiment.
According to the original flight plan, the pilotless Soyuz MS-14 spacecraft was expected to remain at the ISS for two weeks and it was originally scheduled to undock from the station on September 6, 2019, at 21:13 Moscow Time (2:13 p.m. EDT). Following a nearly 4-minute deorbiting maneuver, the separation of the Habitation Module, BO, and the Instrument Module, PAO, the atmospheric entry and the parachute descent, the Descent Module of the spacecraft would touch down 147 kilometers southeast of Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan on September 7, 2019, at 00:35 Moscow Time (03:35 local time in Kazakhstan). It would be 5:35 p.m. EDT on September 7.
After the late arrival of the spacecraft at the station, Roskosmos confirmed that the return to Earth would still take place during the night from September 6 to September 7, 2019, but the exact time of undocking and landing of Soyuz MS-14 was pushed back by one minute:
Before closing hatches from the ISS into the Soyuz MS-14 spacecraft, Aleksandr Skvortsov activated the robot, but it was unclear for how long its battery would be able to keep the device running.
RIA Novosti also quoted the managing partner of the 3D Bioprinting Solutions Yusef Khesuani as saying that samples of the non-organic components of bone tissue and protein crystals produced aboard the station with the company's bio-printer would be returned to Earth aboard Soyuz MS-14.
Summary of science experiments carried back to Earth from the ISS aboard the Descent Module of the Soyuz MS-14 spacecraft:
On September 2, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that its Search and Rescue Team from the Central Military District, TsVO, had flown from the Uprun airfield in the Chelyabinsk District of Russia to its forward operating bases in Kazakhstan in preparation for the support of the Soyuz MS-14 landing. According to the military, the 130-person-strong TsVO team was equipped with eight Mi-8 helicopters, An-12 and An-26 fixed-wing aircraft and 20 ground vehicles, including five Siniya Ptitsa amphibious evacuation trucks.
Soyuz MS-14 lands
According to NASA and Roskosmos, all undocking operations of the Soyuz MS-14 mission went as scheduled. The spacecraft departed the station at 21:13:54 Moscow Time on September 6, 2019, as the two vehicles were flying over Sothern Kazakhstan and China at an altitude of 261 miles. The Soyuz then performed two separation burns with its attitude control thrusters as the cameras on the robotic arm of the ISS kept its lock on the ship, while it remained in view.
Roscosmos then confirmed that nearly four-minute braking maneuver had been performed as planned starting at 23:37 Moscow Time on September 6, followed by modules' separation at 00:06 Moscow Time on September 7. The parachute opening was also confirmed as scheduled, but the landing time was reported to be 00:32 Moscow Time.
Roscosmos also said that the Descent Module had remained in vertical position after its touchdown, even though later videos from the site appear to show recovery personell rolling the capsule on its side, probably before it was put in vertical position.
The successful launch of Soyuz MS-14 in August 2019, cleared the Soyuz-2-1a vehicle for carrying crews beginning in 2020, or around 16 years after that rocket variant had begun flying. Writing on behalf of the robot Fedor soon after its touchdown, Roskosmos also announced that the testing of the new landing system went without a hitch.
On September 10, Roskosmos published photos of robot being extracted from the Descent Module of the Soyuz MS-14 spacecraft inside RKK Energia's facility in Korolev near Moscow.
On June 7, 2019, specialists assembled two modules of the core stage for the Soyuz-2-1a rocket slated to launch Soyuz MS-14. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
On August 5, specialists completed solar panel testing on Soyuz MS-14. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
The upper composite, including the Soyuz MS-14 spacecraft and the third stage of the Soyu-2-1 rocket, is being integrated with the rest of the launch vehicle on August 17, 2019. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Soyuz MS-14 rolls inside its protective payload fairing on August 15, 2019. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Robot Fedor sits inside the Descent Module of the Soyuz MS-14 spacecraft. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Soyuz MS-14 spacecraft lifts off on August 22, 2019. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
One of two segments of the payload fairing (right) was captured by an onboard camera of the Soyuz MS-14 spacecraft during its ascent to orbit on August 22, 2019. Credit: Roskosmos
One of three segments of the tail section on the third stage of the Soyuz-2-1a rocket captured by an onboard camera of the Soyuz MS-14 spacecraft during its ascent to orbit on August 22, 2019. Credit: Roskosmos
Third stage separates from the Soyuz MS-14 as seen by its onboard camera on August 22, 2019. Credit: Roskosmos
Solar panels unfold aboard the Soyuz MS-14 spacecraft moments after its separation from the third stage of the launch vehicle on August 22, 2019. Credit: Roskosmos
Fedor robot inside the Descent Module of the Soyuz MS-14, probably after the arrival at ISS. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Aleksandr Skvortsov wearing "exoskeleton" system to remote control the Fedor robot. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Robot Fedor makes its first moves aboard ISS. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos