The departure of Scott Kelly from the International Space Station (ISS) earlier this month was more than just the end of the pioneering year in space mission. It also saw the end to a social media icon the likes of which we haven’t seen since Chris Hadfield, boosting the profile of the station itself and some of the science performed on board.
But with the launch of a new crew to the ISS, Expedition 47, perhaps we have a new icon. On Friday, March 18, at 5.26 p.m. EDT (9.26 p.m. GMT), a Soyuz spacecraft carrying NASA astronaut Jeff Williams and Russian cosmonauts Alexey Ovchinin and Oleg Skripochka blasted off to the station, with the crew entering the ISS about seven hours later.
“It is great to be back on board @Space_Station, an amazing orbital outpost! Welcome aboard.” Williams tweeted (@Astro_Jeff) shortly after his arrival. He is a veteran astronaut, having flown on three missions before – including a mission in 2000 where the ISS was in its infancy, which you can read more about in our pre-launch story.
Now, Williams isn’t about to set social media alight with his 33,300 followers at the moment. But he has said that he wants to use his time on the station to highlight the history of the ISS, a different angle from previous astronauts who normally focus on the beauty of Earth. Can Williams be the latest social media star on the ISS?
Relive the launch above. Lift-off is at 2:17. NASA
One of NASA’s key aims for the ISS is to boost its public outreach. Arguably, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield (@Cmdr_Hadfield) – with his now 1.57 million followers – was one of the first to drag the ISS into the age of social media, with his incredible and numerous posts on Twitter in 2012-2013.
Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) followed suit, treating his 1.03 million followers to an almost daily dose of pictures and videos from the ISS – including some light-hearted antics alongside serious science. His departure, therefore, has left somewhat of a hole in the social media side of things.
The other residents on the American side of the ISS, NASA’s Tim Kopra (@Astro_Tim) and ESA’s Tim Peake (@astro_timpeake), boast 67,100 and 494,000 followers respectively, no small numbers but perhaps not with the same influence as Kelly (certainly not in the U.S., although Peake is admittedly very popular back home in the U.K.).
The ISS plays host to hundreds of experiments but many of them go unnoticed by the public, which is why social media is so important to NASA, including Instagram and Facebook too. Whether Williams can replicate the success of Kelly remains to be seen.
Williams is pictured here suited up prior to the launch. NASA/Aubrey Gemignani
With his arrival on the ISS, we are now back up to the fully operational crew capacity of six, having dropped briefly to three while Kelly and co switched places with Williams and co. And they’re set to hit the ground running in terms of workload; three unmanned cargo vessels will launch to the station in the next few weeks, with the last of these – SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft – carrying an experimental module known as the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM).
BEAM is not like regular modules on the ISS. Instead, it is launched in a compact form, and will be inflated on the ISS. Technology like this may be used for future missions to Mars, or even the construction of private outposts in Earth orbit.
Other groundbreaking science is also taking place, including starting a small “fire” in Orbital ATK’s unmanned Cygnus spacecraft to see how fire copes in microgravity, and also using a gecko-inspired gripping device on the exterior of the ISS. Another experiment will perform the first space-based observation of meteors entering Earth’s atmosphere.
There’s plenty to be excited about on the ISS, and while Kopra and Peake are doing a fine job, perhaps Williams – who will become the longest-serving American astronaut in September – can be its latest star.
Images courtesy of NASA/Flickr