The second of the three so-called “supermoons” which see out 2016 produced some dramatic photographs and video from around the world. Perhaps one of the most stunning came from cameras at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, monitoring Soyuz MS-03 as it stood on the pad at Launch Complex 1.
As I noted in my last Space Sunday Report, a “supermoon” occurs when the Moon is both full and at perigee – the point in its orbit when it is closest to the Earth as it travels around our planet in an elliptical orbit. Such events occur around every 14 months, and can see the Moon appear to be 14% bigger than its average size in our sky, particularly when seen low on the horizon.
The “supermoon” of November 14th was special because the Moon was about at its closest point to Earth in its orbit – “just” 356,509 kilometres (221,524 miles) from us and the Earth / Moon system is approaching the time of year when it is closest to the Sun (which will occur on January 4th, 2017), thus making the full Moon “extra” bright for those who were able to see it. The next time this will occur will be in 2034. However, December 14th will see another “supermoon”, albeit one at a slightly greater distance away from the Earth, so those who missed November’s – weather permitting – may still get to see one before the year is out. In the meantime, here’s NASA’s footage from Baikonaur – the film obviously speeded-up 🙂 .
Soyuz MS-03 lifted-off from Baikonur on Friday, November 18th, carrying aloft Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy, American astronaut Peggy Whitson and rookie French astronaut Thomas Pesquet. It successfully docked with the International Space Station on Saturday, November 19th, marking the start of the Expedition 50/51 mission aboard the station, the crew sharing space with the Expedition 49/50 crew of mission commander Shane Kimbrough of NASA and Russian cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Andrei Borisenko, who have been aboard the station since October and who are due to return to Earth in February 2017.
For Whitson, this is a double first: she is the oldest woman to ever fly to the ISS – she will celebrate her 57th birthday in orbit – and, come February, she will be the first woman to command the space station for a second time in its 16-year operational history, having already become the very first woman to take command during Expedition 16 in 2007. She is also NASA’s most experienced female astronaut, with nearly 377 days logged in space, including six space walks totalling 39 hours 46 minutes. By the time she returns to Earth, she will have spent more time in space than any other US astronaut, surpassing the 534-day record set by Jeff Williams in September 2016.
During their time aboard the station, Whitson, Novitskiy and Pesquest will conduct hundreds of experiments and studies in biology, biotechnology, physical science and Earth science. A particular focus will be recording how lighting impacts the overall health and well-being of station crew members, and how the microgravity environment in orbit affects tissue regeneration in humans and the genetic properties of space-grown plants.
The crew carry with them some special meal time treats as well. Taking a leaf from British astronaut Tim Peake’s book, Pesquest requested fellow countrymen and renowned chefs Alain Ducasse and Thierry Marx develop a special menu for the crew. Highlights include beef tongue with truffled foie gras and duck breast confit.
“We have food for the big feasts: for Christmas, New Year’s and birthdays. We’ll have two birthdays, mine and Peggy’s,” the Frenchman said at the astronauts’ last press conference before the launch.
Pesquest, a former commercial airline pilot with Air France, is also set to offer some entertainment for the crew: a keen musician, he’s taken his saxophone to the ISS. As part of his work on the station, he has special responsibility for the Proxima research programme of 50 experiments developed by the European Space Agency and the French national space agency, CNES. The programme’s name was suggested by 13-year old Samuel Planas from Toulouse, France, following a nationwide competition among school children. It is taken from Proxima Centauri, with the X in the name both representing the unknown, and the fact that Pesquest is the tenth French astronaut to fly in space.
Oleg Novitskiy, a 45-year-old lieutenant colonel in the Russian Air Force, is also on his second mission aboard the ISS, having previously served as the Soyuz TMA-06M commander during the flight to the ISS, and as the station’s flight engineer during Expedition 33/34. He has spent 143 days 16 hours and 15 minutes in space.