Mark your calendars for these milestone events for the International Space Station in 2012.
1 - European science: PromISSe – until 16 May
During this mission André will perform many exciting experiments, mostly in the European Columbia laboratory module. The PromISSe mission focuses on a wide array of subjects, including fluid physics, materials science, human biology and technology.
Interesting for us, the general public, are the education projects, such as ‘Mission-X, Train Like an astronaut’ and ‘Spaceship Earth’. During the 148-day mission there will be interactive broadcasts between André and students in several countries on earth.
2 - First commercial mission to the ISS – launch 7 February
The launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will open a new chapter for international space flight. For the first time a commercially developed supply vehicle will be launched to the ISS.
It will not yet carry a payload, but perform approach and berthing tests. If successful, SpaceX will officially be the first commercial company to start actual supply missions to the ISS later this year.
Launch of Falcon 9 and its Dragon 2 capsule is now planned for 7 February, with ISS berthing scheduled 4 days later, on 11 February.
After undocking the Dragon-2 capsule will return to earth, in contrast to its non-commercial Progress sister, that burns in the atmosphere. Dragon has been designed as a crew capsule, offering a US alternative to the Russian Soyuz flights.
3 - Cygnus test mission – launch 28 April
A little over two months after the Dragon visit, another company will test its capabilities to start ISS supply missions. Orbital Sciences will launch its new Cygnus spacecraft.
To bring the Cygnus into space, Orbital Sciences uses their Taurus-II rocket successor Antares from the Wallops launch pad in Virginia.
The Cygnus spacecraft will be performing flight tests in orbit for six days and then docks to the ISS on 3 May. Unlike Dragon, this spacecraft is not designed to return to earth and will burn in the atmosphere upon re-entry.
4 - Largest ISS supply ship goes up – launch 9 March
An important milestone for the European Space Agency will be the third launch of the largest ISS supply ship currently in use, the ATV.
For the third consecutive year ESA will bring necessary supplies to the station, using the ‘Edoardo Amaldi’ spacecraft. It carries food, water and equipment.
It will also serve to boost the ISS into a higher trajectory, with a sequence of frequent orbit corrections. ATV-3 is equipped with powerful engines and sufficient fuel for that purpose. Therefore it will dock to the aft section of the station.
ATV-3 is to be launched as the first Ariane 5 launch of the new year, on 9 March. Once departed from the ArianeSpace space port in French Guyana, it will dock with ISS on 11 March.
5 - Many crew rotations – first launch 30 March
Although we have gotten used to the frequent ISS crew rotations, this remains one of the most dangerous parts of ISS operations. But they are also the most interesting events to watch.
As we saw in 2011, a relatively minor incident as a Progress launch failure and subsequent suspension of Soyuz flights, can cause great disturbance to crew availability.
Looking at the calendar, ISS will go through a few short periods where it will have to be operated by a three-man crew, instead of its normal six.
For example, expedition 30 crew members Burbank, Ivanishin and Skaplerov will undock their Soyuz TMA-22 spacecraft on 16 March. They will be replaced by expedition 31 crew members Acaba, Padalka and Revin, who launch in the Soyuz TMA-04M capsule on 30 March. They will then bring the crew back to its normal 6 members when they dock to ISS on 1 April. A similar two-week situation occurs when the TMA-03M undocks and lands on 16 May, only replaced by the TMA-05M crew that is to dock 1 June.
The Russian Soyuz will remain the only ship available and capable of ferrying crews between Baikonur Cosmodrome and ISS in all of 2012.
Remco Timmermans (@timmermansr) is a consultant on sustainable tourism and a space enthusiast. In 2011, he witnessed two impressive launches: the last space shuttle from Kennedy Space Center in Florida and a Soyuz rocket from the Kosmodrome in Kazachstan.