The fast lane: Slinging shuttles around planets
A faster way of getting to the
ON HER second morning in space,
Her head and back throbbed with pain owing to the effects of weightlessness. Even the slightest movement made her feel sick. The joy of watching Earth spin was replaced with a much stronger emotion. The telecoms entrepreneur, who had paid $20 million to become one of the first space tourists, couldn't wait to get off.
Leaving wasn't an option, of course. Ansari had to tough out the rest of the 50-hour journey rolled up in a sleeping bag with her head pushed against cargo destined for the
That was back in 2006 when a trip to the ISS took two days and involved 34 laps around Earth. Earlier this year, though, a pioneering crew made the same trip in just under 6 hours. And in May, a second crewed mission shaved a further 7 minutes off the journey time, setting a new ISS-rendezvous record.
Faster hook-ups have an obvious benefit. The crew spends less time in the cramped confines of the Soyuz vehicle, which has been compared to flying inside a high-tech phone booth. "If you're having trouble acclimatising to space, it's nice to have some extra time to get used to it, and that's easier on the station than in a cramped spacecraft," says five-time US space shuttle astronaut
Shorter flights could make crews more alert, and less time in transit means that astronauts can get down to their busy ISS schedules more quickly. Meanwhile, back on Earth, mission planners are learning valuable lessons that will further our ambitions to explore the wider solar system.
So how did mission controllers manage to slash 44 hours off the journey? And why? The motivation came not from space professionals, but tourists like Ansari. "For them, getting to the ISS as quickly as possible was very important," says
The concept is nearly as old as the space age. In the 1960s and 70s, the US and Soviet space programmes vied to dock with orbiting vehicles in the fastest possible time (see "The other space race", page 40). These "quick profile" schemes were also used to reach the Skylab and Salyut orbital laboratories. But with the arrival in orbit of the Russian Mir station, space travellers were shunted into the slow lane.
Any spacecraft that aims to dock with an orbiting craft is playing a game of catch-up. The early autonomous vehicles that
Mir, which became operational in 1986, was much larger and harder to manoeuvre; its orbital position had to be precisely tracked, and the station raised or lowered to meet incoming spacecraft. Allowing two days for mission controllers to complete these manoeuvres offered far more time to compensate for any errors.
Most Popular Stories
- NSA Defends Global Cellphone Tracking Legality
- Top Websites for U.S. Hispanics
- Networks Vie for U.S. Hispanic TV Viewers
- Ad Counts Rise in 2013 for Hispanic Magazines
- Apple Wants Samsung to Pay $22M for Patent Dispute Legal Bills
- Starbucks Gets Grinchy; No Gingerbread Lattes for Tampa Customers
- Jobs Report Brings Cheer As Unemployment Drops to Five-year Low
- Apple Paid Its Lawyers More Than $60MM to Defeat Samsung in Court
- Economic Bright Spots Not a Sure Boost for President Obama
- US Consumer Borrowing Rose $18.2B in Oct.