On 15th December 2015, a Soyuz spacecraft was launched to the International Space Station. Leaving the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the Soyuz TMA-19M docked with the station six hours after its launch, and British astronaut Tim Peake left his wife and two sons planetside to become the first British astronaut from the European Space Agency to visit the ISS.
As part of expedition 46 and 47, he is spending six months in the confines of the station, surrounded by the infinity of space, in low Earth orbit. As you’re reading this, Tim Peake will have been on the ISS for 10 weeks of his stay. His mission is “Principia” – a name of his own choice, a reference to Isaac Newton’s books on the laws of motion, planetary motion and universal gravitation. With the ISS at his disposal, Peake and his fellow astronauts and cosmonauts intend to use the environment of space to their advantage.
The International Space Station exists as a completely unique scientific research facility. It tests human physiology and biological states, the physics of radiation, solar physics, the biology of microorganisms, cells and tissue, as well as materials science and technology.
In doing so, the crew intend to improve quality of life in space and on Earth, as well as provide future scientists with ways to better assist in human exploration of the solar system. In particular, Tim Peake wants to inspire individuals to better understand and develop an interest in science.
Peake’s experience in sub-orbital conditions may be currently minimal, but he logged around 3000 hours of in-flight time across over thirty different types of helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft as a test pilot. Having been in the cadet force and the Army as an Air Corps officer from a young age, Peake’s knowledge of aircraft, as well as his training, indicates his aptitude for the job – after all, he pretty much lived off the ground anyway, looking at his service logs, so this should just be a (space)walk in the (space)park for him.
A day aboard the station begins and ends with a planning conference to check what has been completed throughout the day and what mission parameters have been accomplished. Like the other astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the station, Tim Peake has had to conduct physical examinations on himself frequently. Weekly questionnaires are conducted to record Peake’s state regarding the phenomenon of Space Headaches – resulting from the stresses of launch and the effects of zero gravity upon the human bloodstream – in order to keep an eye on his condition.
“Peake then became the first British astronaut to conduct a spacewalk across the outside of the ISS”
Peake spends 120 minutes a day exercising, whether on a bike or treadmill, in order to maintain his strength whilst in space, where the human body atrophies. Yes, two hours. Daily. Do any of you guys do that? (if you do, points to you, now get into space and you’ll really impress me.) Bodily tests are taken to test immediate effects of life in space, from taking skin and bodily fluid samples, to cardiovascular, fine motor and eye tests, in order to fully evaluate human life in space.
Life in space is not restricted to the maintenance and evaluation of human health, however – they’ve got to work when they’re up there, too. Peake himself assisted in maintaining the recycling system, the biolab, airlock system, the combustion experiment facility and the electrostatic levitation furnace. You read that last one right. This isn’t a sci-fi novel.
Tim is also in charge of several experiments during his sojourn in space. He is involved in a test experiment known as Meteron, in which he operates rovers on Earth remotely from the confines of the ISS, with the hope of one day doing the same on Mars from the station, circumventing Earth’s atmosphere and satellite traffic. Another key experiment, Expose-R2 (which has nothing to do with inappropriate things involving our favourite Star Wars astromech droid) intends to investigate the effect of extreme environmental pressures, similar to that found on the surface of Mars, on bacteria and organisms found on Earth.
Supplies are sent to the station regularly, brought by unmanned Cygnus resupply ships. These ships are loaded with thousands of kilograms of cargo – from food, other provisions and care packages, to structural and mechanical equipment, as well as various scientific facilities that are installed into the station. These are unloaded by the astronauts, before the Cygnus craft is sent back.
Having assisted one session of extra-vehicular activity (I’d have said spacewalk, but the technical term sounds way better) on the 21st of December through helping equip the other astronauts and coordinating between them and mission control, Peake then became the first British astronaut to conduct a spacewalk across the outside of the ISS on the 15th of January. A month into his stay he left the confines of the station with American astronaut Tim Kopra to replace a sequential shunt unit on the station’s solar arrays.
“Life in space is not restricted to the maintenance and evaluation of human health, however - they’ve got to work when they’re up there, too”
It’s not all hard work, though. Follow the astronaut on Twitter at @astro_timpeake to watch his daily activities, including #SpaceRocks, when, a few times each week, followers can guess what song Peake is playing from his playlist in order to win a patch from the European Space Agency. So, go get on Twitter, because contrary to popular belief, you can be heard whilst in space. At least via Mp3 player.