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The Aist "hitchhiker" payload is being installed on the service module of its "mother ship" Bion-M No. 1 satellite on April 11, 2013. Credit: Roskosmos
Previous chapter: Bion-M No. 1 science program
Preparing Russia's orbital "Noah's Ark"
From around 2005, Russian engineers were working on a new generation of the world's only returnable satellite dedicated to biological research in space. Tracing its roots all the way back to the legendary Vostok spacecraft, that lifted the first man into space, the Bion series of satellites can carry multiple live animals, plants and life-science experiments into orbit and then return them safely to Earth for analysis.
Planning the mission
As of 2008, the launch of Bion-M was promised in 2010, however the mission later slipped to 2011. The original main "hitchhiker" payload -- A TUS astrophysics satellite -- was dropped from the mission and the launch was switched from Soyuz-2-1b to 2-1a version of the rocket. Instead Bion-M No. 1 was expected to release into orbit a cluster of hitchhiker payloads, including small satellites from Germany, France and the Netherlands. However plans to release the Aist satellite during the mission remained in place.
By 2012, the flight duration was reduced from 60 to 45 and then to nearly 30 days, with as many as 70 experiments, many carrying small laboratory animals and live organisms.
The spacecraft was assembled in Baikonur by the beginning of March 2012 without its payloads which were undergoing tests at the launch site. The mission was planned for August 2012, however it was later set for Sept. 10, 2012.
2012: Too cold for launch
By the beginning of July 2012, the launch of Bion had to be delayed until Spring of 2013, because post-flight operations with the satellite's sensitive biological payloads could be properly conducted only during a warm season. However problems during preparations pushed the launch date beyond September 2012. As of September, a fully assembled spacecraft was scheduled for delivery to TsSKB Progress's checkout and test facility, KIS, in Samara on October 29. The shipment to Baikonur was promised before the end of 2012. On October 30, TsSKB Progress confirmed that Bion-M No. 1 finally made it to its KIS facility for final tests. Its launch into a 400-500-kilometer orbit from Baikonur's Site 31 was then scheduled for April 2013. Originally, the mission was expected to be launched by the Soyuz-2-1b rocket, but, was later switched to Soyuz-2-1a.
2013: Reaching the launch pad
As of beginning of 2013, the launch was scheduled between April 15 and 25. According to Roskosmos, the Soyuz-2.1a launch vehicle for the mission and the spacecraft itself (split into descent and instrument modules) arrived to Baikonur on Feb. 18, 2013. The pre-launch processing was conducted at Site 112, with the launch expected during the spring, Roskosmos announced. On February 27, the descent module of the spacecraft was integrated with its instrument section. On April 1, fueling of the spacecraft started at the 11G141 facility in Baikonur. By that time, the launch was scheduled for April 19, 2013, at 13:00. On April 11, the Aist satellite was mounted on the main spacecraft.
Biological species were to be delivered to the launch site a week before a liftoff. The placement of life-science experiments into the spacecraft was to take place 72 hours before launch.
Around 24 hours before liftoff, scientists responsible for the MLZh-01 experiment had to replace their mice "crew" due to the death of one of the animals. According to the Interfax news agency, the apparent stress among overly aggressive mice males led to the conflict, resulting in death of one animal. The whole group (consisting of three animals) had to be replaced, an unnamed source at the launch site was quoted as saying.
In a major departure from a decades-long tradition to rollout the rocket to the launch pad in the early hours of the morning two days before the liftoff, the Bion's launch vehicle would not be moved out of the processing building until the eve of the launch on April 19.
Bion-M No. 1 mission at a glance:
*Reduced from original 60 and 45 days
Next chapter: Mission of Bion-M No. 1 satellite
The article by Anatoly Zak; Last update: May 24, 2013
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Scientific instruments are being placed inside the descent module through the circular hatch, while deployable "hitchhiker" satellites are being attached to a special adapter on the top of the capsule. Four diagonal bars extending from the descent module will hold solar panels before their deployment in orbit. Credit: TsSKB Progress
One of the mice housing units installed into the MLZh experiment during tests. Credit: IMBP
Loading of the MLZh experiment onboard Bion-M on April 17, 2013. Credit: TsENKI
A cage with gerbils installed into the Kontur-BM unit. Credit: IMBP
A gecko "boards" its MLZh-01 container in preparation for launch of the Bion-M No. 1 satellite on April 17, 2013. Credit: TsENKI
Preparation of Omehab experiment for launch. Credit: IMBP