With a thundering roar, the space shuttle Columbia lifted off today, carrying three Europeans and four Americans into space on an ambitious mission to test for a second time the Italian Tethered Satellite System (TSS). The 75th space shuttle mission began on 22 February at 09.18 p.m. CET after a flawless four-day countdown.
"This mission reinforces the strong bonds between the European Space Agency and our American partners" said Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA's Associate Director for Strategy and International Relations. "International crews working in space have become common place and will be the normal mode of operation once the international space station is in orbit."
The tethered satellite, attached to a 2.4 millimetre thick cord, will be released from a deployment boom near the centre of the shuttle's payload bay on Saturday if all goes according to plan. The spherical satellite will eventually reach a distance of about 20.7 kilometres from Columbia, where it will stay for around 22 hours. As it cuts a swathe through the Earth's magnetic field, it will act like a giant dynamo, generating up to 5,000 volts of electricity. In addition to generating power, future tethers could potentially be used to raise or lower the altitude of orbiting spacecraft without expending fuel. Tethers could also be used to lower science instruments into the upper atmosphere. ESA scientists contributed to the development of a number of elements for RETE, one of the 12 experiments on board the TSS.
European Space Agency mission specialists Claude Nicollier and Maurizio Cheli and Italian Space Agency payload specialist Umberto Guidoni accompanied NASA astronauts Andrew Allen, mission commander, Scott Horowitz, pilot, Franklin Chang-Diaz, payload commander and Jeffrey Hoffman, mission specialist.
Swiss-born Nicollier is making his third flight aboard the Shuttle. Italian Cheli is on his first space mission. He began training as a space shuttle mission specialist in August 1992.
Nicollier, Allen, Hoffman and Chang-Diaz were members of the shuttle crew that first attempted to deploy the tethered satellite in 1992. Their efforts then were thwarted because the tether snagged on a bolt in the deployment mechanism. The satellite reached a distance of just 257 metres from the shuttle. Much was learnt about the behaviour of the tether in the critical early deployment phase, but little science was achieved. Since then modifications have been made to the satellite's deployment reel and US and Italian programme officials are confident the system will work as planned this time.
Nicollier and Chang-Diaz are trained for emergency spacewalks to help retrieve, recover, or, in extreme cases, jettison the satellite.
The tether should be visible from Earth, given the right lighting conditions. Unfortunately for European observers, the only sighting opportunities are in the southern hemisphere.
Timings of sighting opportunities and other information about the mission is available on the NASA space shuttle home page on the Internet.
The address is http://shuttle.nasa.gov
Once the tethered satellite is reeled in and berthed in the shuttle's payload bay, the crew's attention will turn to a variety of microgravity and technology experiments.
Columbia's mission is due to end on 7th March with a landing back at the Kennedy Space Center.
With Thomas Reiter nearing the end of his 180-day mission, on board the Russian Mir space station, four western Europeans are currently working in orbit. A total of 12 astronauts and cosmonauts are in space, orbiting the planet in three spacecraft. Columbia's lift-off follows the launch on Wednesday of Soyuz TM-23, carrying a new crew for Mir. Reiter and Russian crewmates Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Avdeev are due to return to Earth on 29 February.