Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Drama on the Space Station

Last Thursday (March 12) I just happened to check my Google Reader in time to see a post on Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog about an emergency evacuation of the International Space Station.

Astronauts were at that very moment closing all the hatches in the station and moving to the Soyuz escape module because a piece of space debris was heading towards them raising the possibility of a fatal impact.

The debris was a “yo weight” from a used rocket booster launched way back in 1993 that was still in orbit after all these years. The yo weight is a small mass attached to a 1-meter-long cable used to tumble a spent rocket stage away from a payload so it doesn’t accidentally bang into and damage it.

So big deal right? A little rock with a string. How bad could it be? Well, this little 1 kg weight and the attached cable were moving at a relative speed of a few miles per second and could have ripped open a massive hole in the space station.

The Soyuz module would be their only hope of survival if the unthinkable happened.

The Soyuz escape module docked at the ISS

What really brought the drama home for me was the fact that Plait linked to the Twitter feed of a Universe Today reporter named Nancy Atkinson who was providing up-to-the-moment accounts of what was happening. Right up until the 12:39pm Eastern Time moment of potential impact she was relaying news 140 characters at a time.

I was following the crisis in real-time and man, it was tense.

It looked like this:

• ISS crew is closing down Columbus, Japanese modules in preparation for evacuation into the Soyuz. Possible debris hit.
(7:53 AM Mar 12th from web)

• Fincke (that’s Mike Fincke, Space Station Commander) reports Columbus hatch is closed, now closing Node 2 starboard hatch.
(7:56 AM Mar 12th from web)

• JPM hatch is getting closed, MPEV is closed. Mike Fincke and Sandy Magnus (Flight Engineer) following procedures and keeping mission control apprised.
(8:00 AM Mar 12th from web)

• ISS Crew Closing node 2 hatch, will be out of communications for short time.
(8:08 AM Mar 12th from web)

• Moscow MC (Mission Control) recommends leaving hatch to Soyuz open for now, but still discussing options.NASA:closing is posible,Fincke says they'll decide.
(8:19 AM Mar 12th from web)

• Radio silence now as ISS crew working to close hatches and enter Soyuz. For now, Soyuz hatch to remain open, but can be closed quickly.
(8:29 AM Mar 12th from web)

• Soyuz won't leave station unless impact actually occurs. Again, probability low, but object is big.
(8:29 AM Mar 12th from web)

• Fincke and Magnus are in Soyuz. Waiting for instructions.NASA and Moscow still deciding about closing Soyuz hatch or not.
(8:33 AM Mar 12th from web)

• Waiting, waiting. Crew should all be in Soyuz. 2 minutes to close encounter.
(8:38 AM Mar 12th from web)

• No communications from ISS yet.
(8:40 AM Mar 12th from web)

• Anyone else's heart pounding out there?
(8:44 AM Mar 12th from web)

• Beeps. More Russian chatter.....Fincke speaks!
(8:46 AM Mar 12th from web)

• Fincke: We understand we are cleared! Yay!
(8:46 AM Mar 12th from web)

• Fincke: Tell us what the steps are to execute the re-ingress to station.
(8:47 AM Mar 12th from web)

• Danger of debris hit is now passed. Crew returning to station, following procedures to reopen all the hatches.
(8:51 AM Mar 12th from web)

• Wow. Well, that was a little intense....
(8:54 AM Mar 12th from web)

• All hatches have een re-opened. "Big picture is done," says Fincke. ISS Events from today are now being rescheduled
(8:58 AM Mar 12th from web)

Whoa. A full eight minutes of radio silence from two minutes before impact until an excruciating six minutes after the debris had passed had me as rigid and tense as any movie.

Totally incredible.

Now, this Twitter thing…I knew what it was but had, up until this moment, absolutely no interest and quite a bit of contempt for the Twitterati. For those of you unaware, Twitter is a kind of micro-blog. Basically, you can post from almost any device and almost any place but the posts have a maximum length of 140 characters.

So conceivably you could update your slavish friends and family who absolutely must know what’s going on in your life from minute to minute. You know, “going to the store”, “ordering a hamburger for lunch, will work off at gym.”

I myself prefer the longer, reasoned, eloquent and substantive posts that you’ve come to expect and love from TMUOTF.

However, as regular readers know, I have tried to impose a "post quota" on myself. If I could average one every two days I would be delighted but work and life intrude and as of this writing, March 17, I only have four posted so far this month.

And although it’s only a self imposed quota, it really bugs me!

Now that I see how Twitter can be used for good instead of evil, how it can be used to create and share drama, I’m seriously thinking about adding a Twitter feed to the blog. Presumably I could update more often and more conveniently while still avoiding pablum like what I had for lunch.

So look for that as soon as I have time to figure out how to do it. Which could be July at this rate.

If you have any relevant Twitter experience or thoughts, please do share.

No comments: