So, what's happening then?
On Tuesday March 11th at 06:28 GMT, Space Shuttle Endeavour launches to the International Space Station.
So, what are they doing this time?
Space Shuttle mission STS-123 will deliver a habitable module and a robotic hand to the orbital outpost. Following hot on the heels of STS-122 in February, which delivered the European "Columbus" laboratory, the ISS is set to go from International to Global as Japan joins the fold with the first of three components. Canada continues to add its robotic expertise with a dextrous extension to the station's primary robot arm. The mission will close out with continued repair work on a failed joint that rotates the massive solar arrays to track the sun. The SARJ (Solar Array Rotary Joint) on the port side of the station has been only partially functional since NASA detected unusual vibrations and shut it down last year.
The Japanese laboratory, named Kibo (Hope), consists of three parts. Two pressurised, or habitable modules, and one external facility. This mission delivers the smaller of two pressurized modules of Kibo, which will be attached temporarily to a docking port on the space-facing side of the station's Harmony node. It will remain there until May, when the next Shuttle mission, STS-124, delivers the second module. The final component, an external facility for performing experiments exposed to space, will be delivered next year.
The Canadian robotic arm extension, known as Dextre, is effectively a robot "hand" that can manipulate objects with the same dexterity as a spacewalking astronaut. Dextre is an incredible feat of engineering which will allow astronauts inside the station to "plug in" to it through a virtual reality interface. They can use its cameras to see in 3D, and feedback from tactile fingers allow them to "grab" objects with finger sensitive touch. As much as the astronauts love to spacewalk, it is a time consuming and potentially dangerous undertaking. Dextre will perform many of the same tasks, ironically without the need to expose an astronaut to incredible views of his home planet!
Here's a cool animation showing Dextre in action.
STS-123 will be the longest mission to the ISS, with 13 full days docked to the station.
So, where can I watch all the fun?
The best online feed for NASA TV is at Yahoo. Click the Watch NASA TV link on this page.
So, TV is great and all, but can I see them in the sky?
Of course you can! Heavens-Above is a great resource for viewing. I have created a Spacers logon with several locations of known Spacers ready to go. Click the link, Login with the username: Spacers and password: spacehead and in the Configuration section click Switch Observing sites. If your location isn't there, please add it from the database. Then you can click the ISS link to see viewing opportunities at your location.
Look out also for the European Jules Verne spacecraft that is being launched on Saturday at 10:03 CT. It is the test flight of the European cargo delivery system that will resupply the ISS twice a year. The cool thing is that JulesV will wait in a parking orbit behind the ISS for a while so they can check it out, then after the Shuttle undocks it will move in for close maneuvers and docking. During this time the ISS, Shuttle, and Jules Verne will all be visible together in the sky. Look out for viewing opportunities on Heavens-Above.
I'll update the blog as the mission progresses, so happy spacing, spacers!