The ISS User Information Centre at ESA’s technical facility in Noordwijk
(NL) has a new exhibit: a Foton science capsule. Marked by the fires of
its 2,500-degree reentry — if you stand close enough, you can still
smell the scorched heat-shield — the little Russian spacecraft is the
descent module from the Foton-12 mission, launched in September, 1999.

The Foton programme

Foton craft have been flying since the mid-1980s, carrying anything up
to 650 kg of scientific experiments into an orbit around the Earth that
guarantees around two weeks of excellent weightless conditions.

At launch, Foton masses around 6.5 tonnes and consists of three modules:
a battery module, a service module, and the descent module, with its
scientific payload. The craft is launched by a Soyuz booster from
Plesetsk, near Archangel; once its mission is completed, the descent
module lands near the Russia-Khazakstan border and its contents are
usually available to researchers within a few hours.

Low cost, fast turn-around

ESA has been a Foton partner since 1987: long enough to develop an
excellent working relationship between the agency and the Russian
manufacturers and launch teams. The Foton programme gives researchers
the opportunity for relatively low-cost work in weightlessness with
a much longer duration that sounding rockets can offer and a faster
turn-around than they could expect with long-term experiments aboard
the International Space Station.

ESA Technical Officer Antonio Verga has worked with Foton for years.
"It’s very good value for money. Foton carries a multi-disciplinary
payload — anything from biological experiments to fluid physics and
technology testing. Since the spacecraft is unmanned, logistics are
greatly simplified and safety concerns are minimized."

Good will and opportunity

Because of the long-standing relationship between ESA and TsSKB Samara,
the Russian organization that builds and launches Foton, it is often
possible to make late changes to experimental configurations with no
more bureaucracy than a few faxes and some good will. And scientists
can usually have last-minute access to the packages aboard.

In other words, Foton is about opportunity. That’s why Foton-12 is now
in the International Space Station User Information Centre at ESTEC.
"It’s not a museum piece," says Verga. "It’s there to show visitors
what is possible." Foton-12, its experiments long since removed,
is not quite an empty shell. "You can still see some of its major
characteristics: the external vacuum venting line, the power supply
interface — around 500 Watt is available for experiments — and the
parachute compartment, for example."

Foton doesn’t rely only on parachutes for its soft landing: there is
also a retro-rocket system that ignites as the package nears the
ground. Even so, the capsule and its contents have to be robust
enough to withstand a brief deceleration of about 40 gravities —
roughly equivalent to crashing a car into a brick wall at 20 km/h.

A platform for future ideas

Verga hopes that User Information Centre visitors will look at the
Foton capsule and see a platform for their experimental ideas. The
next Foton mission — Foton M-1 — is scheduled for October 2002,
and will include experiments designed by student groups from York,
Edinburgh and Zurich. Foton’s scars show where the little capsule
has been. Verga and the rest of ESA’s Foton team hope that the new
exhibit will suggest to visitors where they might be going.

Related links

* Foton-12 press release

* Foton programme


[Image 1:]
Foton-12 capsule arrives in Noordwijk.

[Image 2:]
Foton-12 capsule scorched after re-entry.

[Image 3:]
FluidPac installed in Foton-12.

[Image 4:]
The free-flyer Foton-M1, under development by TsSKB/Progress of Samara,
Russia, is an upgrade of the generic Foton spacecraft. Biopan is the
white structure on the sphere-shaped re-entry capsule. Stone, embedded
in the re-entry capsule’s skin underneath the spacecraft’s service
module (at left), is not exposed until re-entry.