Category Archives: Russia

Your Comrade Through Space History


Take a walk through history. Image from Roscosmos.

A friend of mine passed along this link today: Before you click on it, you should have some time on your hands. This is an animated walk through history, thanks to Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency. It’s a very dynamic and cool way to present some of the more important historic bits in space history.

Initially, there’s a Russian space history focus. But as the little space traveller goes along, more international missions get discovered. Really, that site is all this short blurb of a post is about, but maybe it will help make the mid-week bearable for some of you.

If you are Russian, learning Russian, or have Russian friends, you can go directly to: Either site is pretty nifty, maybe proving that it doesn’t matter the language–space is just fun.

P.S.: Don’t forget to move the mouse around on the initial load screen. The spacewalking cosmonaut is more than a pretty picture.

Baikonur Cosmodrome

There’s something kind of beautiful about this old Soviet rocket design. Notice the arms protruding from the ground? Those arms are what hold the rocket up before launch, using the rocket’s weight to “clamp” it into place. Image from Wikimedia.

I found this 2001 Air & Space article during my research about Sputnik-1, the world’s first artificial satellite. It’s a very good first person account of a visit out to the Baikonur Cosmodrome and some of the run-ups and rituals for launching from there. The writer was there for a launch of the first permanent International Space Station crew (which occurred in November 2000). It’s a neat article, because I love reading about some of the traditions established by the Russians that started with Sputnik-1’s launch. The story is four pages long, so if you have time, give it a read.

Overhead look of some of the launch sites in Baikonur. Image hosted on “Stop Frames of the Planet” blog.

Probably like most space nerds, I’ve known about Baikonur for a long time. It’s a big Russian rocket launch complex. It’s also known by another, perhaps less well-known name: Tyuratam (or Tyura Tam). Either way, the Cosmodrome has a place in space history, as well as missile development history. Like Peenemuende in Germany (some history about that here), it is the site that launched a few space history “firsts.” Probably the most well-known is the launch of Sputnik-1 into space on October 4, 1957 from Baikonur’s “site 1.” Sputnik-1 wasn’t very big, just 23 inches (58 centimeters) in diameter and weighing around 184 pounds (over 83 kilograms).

Almost exactly a month later, Laika the dog was launched in Sputnik-2. Laika, unfortunately, didn’t last long, but the satellite the poor dog was ensconced in was massive when compared to Sputnik-1, weighing in at over 1,120 pounds (about 508 kilograms). Both Sputniks were launched on top of a modified R-7 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)–which was a first as well. The R-7, like the traditions at Baikonur, became well-used. It became a heavily modified rocket design used in space launches even now.

Yuri Gagarin was launched from Baikonur. He was “only” the first man in space. Launched into space on April 12, 1961, we still commemorate that event now with “Yuri’s Night” every year in April. By the way, the organization I work with will be hosting a Yuri’s Night this year (2015). We’re going to have astronauts and others hosting the event, and it will be in our little, but fantastic, museum–the Discovery Center. If you wish to attend, you’ll have to pay, though. If you are close by and wish to attend, just go here.

But back to Baikonur. It is the biggest launch complex in the world. It’s probably also the oldest. The Soviets used to own it, building it in the middle of nowhere (for the most part) so their missile tests wouldn’t inadvertently hurt populated areas. Another consideration for it’s placement in Kazakhstan was to keep Soviet activities away from spying US eyes (although it was photographed by a U-2 within the same year the Soviets started testing ICBMs in 1957). It was a part of the Soviet Union, but now is leased for use by the Russian government from Kazakhstan.

Baikonur is the ONLY place right now that launches humans to the International Space Station. Which makes it the ONLY place that gives humans a physical toehold in space exploration and activities. China might also eventually start placing Taikonauts in their own space station, but until Americans once again have a crew-rated space launch vehicle, the Russians, and Baikonur in particular, are both playing important and historic roles for human space launch.

Satellite Imagery Provides No Real Help for MH17 (because of Photoshopping?)

Wait, this image is probably not what it looks like. Image is hosted on

I happened on this news story last Friday as I was in research mode at work: MH17 update. It looked interesting, but was also suspicious when I considered the timing of the image’s release corresponding to Putin getting a finger in the chest from the Australian Prime Minister. However, me being at work meant I really couldn’t look into it a bit more to figure out what exactly was going on.

As a reminder, earlier this year Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot out of the sky over Ukraine. Passengers and crew on board all died. Some sources were pointing to a surface to air missile shot from a BUK (a vehicle dedicated to carrying and launching rockets), but there hasn’t been any authoritative evidence really set forth for any kind of criminal investigation to contemplate. The image in the Daily Mail’s story shows that a fighter jet of some kind fired off a missile (the line in front of the fighter’s nose is the missile’s contrail) toward some kind of passenger jet. Except maybe that’s not the truth either.

So now I have had time do some searching about this story online, and can’t say I’m too surprised with the stories coming out regarding the image above. Many people with much better eyes and backgrounds in imagery have come out to say the picture’s been cobbled together. This site, Belling¿cat, seems to be a pretty good overall place to go and read about how people have figured out the satellite images are fakes. There are the side-by-side comparisons, plus the obvious grabs for images off the internet by whoever made it. Keep in mind that I’m not very familiar with Belling¿cat, so they may have an agenda for spinning stories a certain way. It seems legit, though.

I’m not saying it’s impossible for the kind of thing that’s pictured in that imagery to have happened, but it seems unlikely–maybe as unlikely as a BUK launching a surface to air missile at an airliner. This story is so convoluted, so tinged by political agendas, I am unsure there will be any kind of truth coming out of this soon, if ever.

But here’s the reality–those people on that Malaysian Airlines MH17 airplane were murdered. Whether it was politics, a guerilla war, one side or the other–someone took a shot at a passenger plane, downed it, then stayed quiet about it. Is this the first time something like this has happened? No, and this Wikipedia list (which I wouldn’t consider a first-hand source), has a list of the unfortunates shot down since passengers have been flying in aircraft.

It’s easy to get cynical about it, saying the thugs in the region have too much control for any truth to get out. I’ve seen some of those comments, and must note that if people go in with that kind of perspective, then such a perspective might perhaps inform the outcome of this tragedy’s investigation, no matter how grounded in history and reality the perspective might be.

Not helping in any of this is the US government. People within the US government made allegations that sounded like they could be substantiated. I wrote a bit about those allegations in this post: Can Top Secret Satellites Aid in International Justice? Overhead military assets like the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) were mentioned, as well as mentions by none other than John Kerry of possible Signals/Communications Intelligence (SIGINT/COMINT) interceptions. But then things seemed to just get quiet. I really haven’t found any reasons why there hasn’t been any other information. But it could be the US is unwilling to divulge any more information that may reveal technical data about the US intelligence collection assets. Even if a judge were given jurisdiction of this case, and subpoenaed the information, I am not sure the US government would divulge the details.

The upshot of this whole thing, though, is nobody seems to believe the image wasn’t doctored, except where it counts: in Russia. This Austin 360 post reiterates this sentiment fairly well at the end of its own story about this image kerfuffle. Sigh!

The Soft Landing?!

Soyuz TMA. Image from RSC Energia.

Below is just a fun little clip one of the people I work with shared. As much fun as the gentleman narrating the clip is having at the expense of Soyuz (it’s all tongue in cheek), we really need to remember one thing: it’s the only way we can get people up to the ISS and back safely right now. An artifact with direct ancestry from the Space Race and Cold War is now helping ferry US astronauts to and from the ISS…

Everything else, the Dragon, the CST-100, is pretty much fiction–until they aren’t any longer. That’s not a knock on SpaceX or Boeing–it’s just the priority the United States government put on a way to transport astronauts to and from the ISS with a US-based system–which is to say none. I am a bit thankful that NASA is trying to get things moving on the commercial side, though.

How long have we known that particular problem would happen, by the way? For me, at least as early as 2004, when instructors noted during one of my classes the retirement of the shuttle with no replacement in sight. Which might have been plenty of time to have done something, but of course history shows just how well the US used that time.

At least there’s always humor to fall back on–enjoy the clip!

DIY Space: Ardusat

Image from Ardusat.

Before I begin the fairly short DIY part, this is just a reminder for those who don’t know, or just plain forgot.  Today is the anniversary of Sputnik I, the first man-made satellite, which was launched into orbit on the top of an R-7 rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome. The R-7 had already been successfully tested as a missile earlier, on August 21, 1957.  That test demonstrated the R-7 to be the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile as it flew the 3,700 miles to hit a target near the Kamchatka Peninsula.

Artist’s conception of Sputnik I in orbit. Image from Wikimedia, posted by Gregory R. Todd.


However, the nosecone system designed to protect the nuclear payload  had failed during that test.  In September, another R-7 basically did the same thing again, but this time the nosecone worked as designed.  In spite of the historical and strategic significance of the missile tests, the West didn’t really bat an eyelid.  It only reacted once Sputnik was launched into orbit.  If you wish to read a really great story about the origins, development, and launch of Sputnik, I recommend Matthew Brzezinski’s “Red Moon Rising.”  It does a great job of humanizing the Soviet Chief Engineer, Sergei Korolev.  Sputnik I was always Korolev’s goal, but the missile program helped him get there.  The story shows the Soviet Union’s rocket development efforts in contrast to the antics going on in the United States at the time.

Also, Sputnik’s anniversary kicks off the start of “World Space Week” for 2014.  For those interested, please go to the website, which is full of good information.

Back to DIY, though.  If you’re a teacher who believes the classroom needs more hands on with space projects, this might be the key, depending on your resources.  Ardusat wants to bring satellite building into the classroom.  They offer a few kits, and according to this post, the cost of the kits is as low as $2,500.  The kits use a Spire (formerly Nanosatisfi) Cubesat bus and, of course, an Arduino (What!  You don’t know what an Arduino is??!!  Go here to find out).  It also includes a few sensors and wires.  There’s more to their kits, but you can go to this part of their website to find out, if you’re curious.

If you and your students have an idea for an Ardusat experiment, then just go this part of Ardusat’s site and sign up for their Association of Space Explorers Astrosat Challenge.  You can sign up until October 30, 2014.  The prize?  One week’s worth of data from an on-orbit satellite.