Discovery Carries First Non-human Passenger Into Space

Discovery heads to orbit after takeoff as seen from Smyrna Beach 40 miles north of the launch site. Credit: JeRay Johnson

Everything went A-OK during Thursday afternoon’s launch of the space shuttle Discovery from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Even 40 miles away, the shuttle made for a spectacular sight as you can see in Duluthian JeRay Johnson’s photo. The ship is now en route to the International Space Station.

Thursday morning, engineers filled its external fuel tank with super-cold liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, that when mixed, react explosively to create the thrust needed to counter Earth’s gravitational pull and send the ship into space.

A closer view of Discovery's liftoff west of the launch facility in Titusville by Jim Schaff, formerly of Hermantown, Minn.

Six astronauts will rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS) to deliver supplies, spare parts, a new module for experiments and an external platform for large equipment. Oh, there’s one more passenger – Robonaut 2, a.k.a. R2,  the first humanoid robot to join the ISS crew.

Robonaut 2 surpasses previous dexterous humanoid robots in strength, yet it is safe enough to work side-by-side with humans. Here it's holding a 20-lb. weight. Credit: NASA.

R2, a joint project between NASA and General Motors, will become a permanent member of the space station. While NASA hopes to use the robot primarily to test its functions in the weightless environment of space, it’s hoped that one day R2 will be able to assist astronauts during spacewalks and provide help with other tasks.

This will be Discovery’s 13th and final trip to the space station. The sturdy bird has flown more missions than any other shuttle, logging nearly a year in orbit with an odometer reading of 143 million miles to prove it. When it returns, the ship will be decommissioned and most likely find a new home at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. One and possibly two more shuttle launches remain – Endeavour on April 19 and Atlantis on June 28. The Atlantis mission still awaits funding however.

The crew of STS-133 just before they climbed inside the Astrovan to go to the launch pad early this afternoon. Credit: NASA

Discovery will dock with the ISS around 2:16 p.m this Saturday the 26th. Over the next few nights observers across North America should be able to see the two craft approach one another as they follow one behind the other across the evening sky. The little game of cat-and-mouse is enjoyable to watch and photograph.

I’ll post the best times for viewing as well as tips on how to take your own photos in the coming days. Thursday night the space station will track west to east across the northern sky starting at 7:25 p.m. CST for the Duluth, Minn. region. Friday evening it will pass directly overhead at 6:18 in a bright twilight sky followed by Discovery at 6:43 halfway up in the northern sky. For times for your town, click HERE and enter your zip code.

Slightly more technical but very up to date is NASA’s Human Space Flight website. Once you key in your zip code or select your city from a map, a window opens up with ISS as the default satellite. Open the menu and scroll down to select SHUTTLE. Click the NEXT SIGHTING button to get evening passes visible from your town.

The last quarter moon will be about three degrees from Antares tomorrow morning before dawn. Created with Stellarium

Planning on being out tomorrow morning before dawn? Take a look at the last quarter moon. Just a few degrees to its right, you’ll see Antares, the brightest star in the constellation of Scorpius the Scorpion outlined in the map at right.

Last quarter phase is also a good time to spot craters along the moon’s centerline or terminator using a pair of binoculars.