Our Russian adventure: launch day!
Well this is it: we’re in the final stages. After over five years of talking, planning, building, testing and more testing we have arrived at the Baikonur Cosmodrome for the final phase of the YES2 adventure.
The big day for YES2 had arrived, the moment when we would see the small but innovative student experiment take its trip into orbit atop the Foton-M3 spacecraft on its Soyuz launch vehicle - a giant in comparison.
Whilst we were trying to sleep in our beds, the Soyuz rocket was slowly but surely being filled with tonnes and tonnes of rocket fuel at the pad. The day before had been very exciting, watching the roll-out of the rocket from the integration hall on the train and chasing it in the bus as it got transported to the pad, then literally sprinting 200 metres to the pad so as not miss its grand arrival.
The lifting of the rocket into the vertical position was slow but impressive. Now, we were in store for an even more spectacular experience: watching the launch from the viewing platform about 800 metres from the pad. We arrived at the viewing platform at about one hour before launch, filled with many strong emotions like excitement, anticipation, pride, a little anxiety and a lot of hope for a successful launch. The sky was blue, no clouds around, the wind was weak, conditions were perfect!
As the countdown approached, Fabio, Marco and I set up the video camera and got into position for a good view. The loudspeaker broadcast the countdown in Russian, we saw the main gantries surrounding the rocket unfold and swing away, then about 25 seconds before lift-off we spotted the cloud of smoke coming from beneath the pad. Everything was silent still in the desert at that moment. The engines of the first stage had ignited but the sound waves had not yet reached our position. Then, a great roar arrived, we saw the last stabilising gantries move away and the first signs of thrust as the rocket started to lift off.
Immediately, the collective plume of the 20 thrusters firing simultaneously came into view, a bright ball of energy almost blinding us by its intensity. It was an amazing experience of light and sound. As the rocket climbed, the full length of the rocket plume became visible and we looked on as it gradually became smaller and smaller in the sky. Finally, before it disappeared from view, we caught a glimpse of the four boosters separating; YES2 was on the tip of the rocket and well on its way to space.
After the rocket went out of visible range, we had to wait about 8 minutes for confirmation over the loudspeaker that the Foton-M3 spacecraft had reached the targeted orbit. Over this time, the announcements were made in Russian, so Christian Feichtinger, Head of the ESA Moscow Office translated for us. Second stage separation...all nominal...third stage separation....all nominal....and finally after what seemed like forever....orbit injection complete...all nominal. The launch had been a complete success, Soyuz had delivered the spacecraft into the planned orbit. Relief and happiness for all concerned, and hand shakes all round.
Our thoughts now turned to YES2, now going through the first of its soon to be familiar 16 times daily cycle of darkness and sunlight as it passes in and out of Earth's shadow. Then, we celebrated!
The next stage
The following day we began to focus on the job in hand: mission operations in Moscow and the tether deployment on 25 September at around 05:00 GMT.
Join us next week for our web diary from the mission control centre at Korolyev in Moscow where we do the final YES2 mission planning and analysis.