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  1. With a launch planned for the early morning of 16 November, ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet, NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson and Roscosmos commander Oleg Novitsky face a busy schedule of Soyuz exams this month.

    Soyuz MS-03 crew

    The trio will be flying to the International Space Station on a new model of Soyuz ferry designated MS. The MS stands for ‘modernised systems’ and this will be the third launch of the lighter, upgraded Soyuz. A new spacecraft means new flight procedures, so Oleg, Thomas and Peggy have more homework than usual to master the controls.

    They passed their first test on 6 October with a manual reentry exam, piloting the craft back to Earth safely in a simulation. 

    Thomas is the flight engineer, sitting on the left of commander Oleg and acting as co-pilot for launch and return.

    On 13 October the trio will enact a rendezvous and docking with the Space Station in their simulator at Star City near Moscow.

    These exams are as faithful to the real thing as possible – everything except the weightlessness, the Station and movement is recreated. The instructors invariably programme emergency scenarios into the mix to make sure the astronauts react accordingly and show they know their stuff.

    Thomas Pesquet training in Soyuz simulator

    After their second test, the trio have 10 days to prepare for the last stretch: in three days they must pass another rendezvous simulation and an exam on the Station’s Russian segment, ending with the final Soyuz qualification exam on 25 October.

    That last exam will see them work through a complete launch and docking dressed in the Sokol suits they will wear in space. To begin, commander Oleg will choose an unmarked envelope that contains the emergency scenarios that will be played out – from a fire in the spacecraft to loss of pressure or problems with the docking mechanism.

    Afterwards, Oleg, Peggy and Thomas will pay a traditional tribute to fallen cosmonauts at Moscow’s Red Square before heading to the launch site at Baikonur in Kazakhstan.

    Thomas says, “These are exciting times and I am privileged to be working with the best instructors and crewmates who inspire confidence at every step of the journey. I cannot wait to be launched be into space with Oleg and Peggy.”

    Mission Proxima
    Thomas’s Proxima mission includes more than 50 experiments for ESA and France’s CNES space agency, plus many more for Station partners. Read more about the experiments via the list on the left.

    Thomas is keen on sharing his experience in the run up to launch and his adventure in space – follow him and the mission via and watch the launch live on the ESA website.

    Oleg, Peggy and Thomas
  2. Before and after: fragment impact in space
    31 August 2016

    ESA engineers have discovered that a solar panel on the Copernicus Sentinel-1A satellite was hit by a millimetre-size particle in orbit on 23 August. Thanks to onboard cameras, ground controllers were able to identify the affected area. So far, there has been no effect on the satellite’s routine operations.

    A sudden small power reduction was observed in a solar array of Sentinel-1A, orbiting at 700 km altitude, at 17:07 GMT on 23 August. Slight changes in the orientation and the orbit of the satellite were also measured at the same time.

    Following a preliminary investigation, the operations team at ESA’s control centre in Darmstadt, Germany suspected a possible impact by space debris or micrometeoroid on the solar wing.  

    Detailed analyses of the satellite’s status were performed to understand the cause of this power loss. In addition, the engineers decided to activate the board cameras to acquire pictures of the array. These cameras were originally carried to monitor the deployment of the solar wings, which occurred just a few hours after launch in April 2014, and were not intended to be used afterwards.

    Following their switch-on, one camera provided a picture that clearly shows the strike on the solar panel.

    The power reduction is relatively small compared to the overall power generated by the solar wing, which remains much higher than what the satellite requires for routine operations.


    “Such hits, caused by particles of millimetre size, are not unexpected,” notes Holger Krag, Head of the Space Debris Office at ESA’s establishment in Darmstadt, Germany.

    “These very small objects are not trackable from the ground, because only objects greater than about 5 cm can usually be tracked and, thus, avoided by manoeuvring the satellites.

    “In this case, assuming the change in attitude and the orbit of the satellite at impact, the typical speed of such a fragment, plus additional parameters, our first estimates indicate that the size of the particle was of a few millimetres.

    “Analysis continues to obtain indications on whether the origin of the object was natural or man-made. The pictures of the affected area show a diameter of roughly 40 cm created on the solar array structure, confirming an impact from the back side, as suggested by the satellite’s attitude rate readings.”

    This event has no effect on the satellite’s routine operations, which continue normally.

    The Sentinel-1 satellites, part of the European Union’s Copernicus Programme, are operated by ESA on behalf of the European Commission.

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