Sunday, February 24, 2013

Operation "Red Eye"

Up until now no maned craft has traveled beyond the veil of Kerbin. In fact, the only off-world landing made thus far occurred on the Mün (an endeavor which had mixed results). Regardless, it has come to time journey further out to other planets in orbit around Kerbol. The red and white planet, Duna, has been chosen. In preparation for what the press have dubbed Operation "Red Eye", several vessels have been specially designed and constructed.

The first of these was the Solar Sailor, a computer controlled scout vessel powered by photovoltaic panels and nine ion engines.  The spacecraft had already visited Mün and Minmus.  Through patient handling it even managed to cross paths with Duna.  Sadly, the meeting was short lived.  Solar Sailor didn't have enough xenon gas left to complete a breaking maneuvering.  It drifts endlessly now in the depths of space.  Never to be seen again.  

Next is Sky Hydra, a humble and still incomplete space station in equatorial orbit over Kerbin.  It serves as a staging point for all the resources need in Operation "Red Eye".

Already docked with it, is the Chancy Chariot's successor, Mega Mule. More massive than the station itself, this towing spacecraft has already proved its worth during a crisis which occurred during the installation of the fuel depot module onto Sky Hydra. The launch vehicle proved to be inadequate and as such ran out of fuel before making rendezvous. A small automated vessel (call signed Dog Tug) was dispatched to retrieve the fuel supplies, but it too exhausted its tank of RCS propellant before the remote operator was able to guide it back to the space station. Left with no other option, Mega Mule was dispatched and performed the recovery process with flawless efficiency. Now fully prepared, station and spacecraft await the arrival of the lander which will set down on the surface of Duna.

The next launch from the Kerbal Space Center is two fold in purpose. First, a crew module will be installed into Sky Hydra, making the previously automated station an inhabitable one. Second the lander component will dock with Mega Mule and transfer supplies and personnel. Operation "Red Eye" has begun in earnest.

The early phases go off without a hitch. Docking and transfer take time, but there are no major difficulties. The only major point of concern is the dangerous proximity of the lander's legs and engines to those of Mega Mule's rocket exhaust path. Luckily, all that is need is a little care when docking the lander to ensure safety during travel.

The amount of fuel expended in order to move so much material to an encounter with Duna is high.  Lengthy burn times send shutters through the crew compartments. The plotting calculations prove to be fairly accurate though, and Mega Mule (plus lander) are successfully brought into Duna's SOI less than three months later. A retro-burn is initiated. At this point the payload specialist makes a horrifying discovery. The cross feed between Mega Mule and lander had not been disabled resulting in an incorrect reading regarding fuel reserves.

The situation is critical. In an attempt to conserve dwindling fuel supplies, the gravitational influence of Ike is used to bring Mega Mule into an elliptical orbit around Duna. Swinging in close, all remaining fuel is pumped to the lander tanks. Mega Mule wont be going home, but at least the primary objective of "Red Eye" can still be completed. Detaching from the towing craft, the lander burns its periapsis down into Duna's atmosphere. Drogue chutes deploy...shortly thereafter the main parachutes go out. The four small thrusters kick in, bleeding off what excess speed remains. At 500 meters the lander is jarred hard as all parachutes fully deploy. Everything holds together though and the landing gear is lowered. Touchdown is at a comfortable three meters per second. Unfortunately, the lander has come down on a slope and tips onto its side, breaking a thruster off in the process.

For a moment it looks like Operation Red Eye is a failure, but the lander has one unique feature...the bottom of it is actually a rover. At about 15 percent throttle, the top of the lander is detached, sending it spilling out across the crimson sands upside down not far away. The smoke trails from the capsized lander look impressive, but the crew view it as nothing more than a terrible waste of fuel. The tanks were still half full, and there is nothing that can be done except to watch them slowly bleed off their remaining energy.

Still caught on the slope the rover roles uncontrollably into the lander wreckage threatening to damage the power supply. Luckily, a little well placed RCS thrust and a fully powered ion drive roll the rover clear of the deathtrap. Two Kerbonauts are on the surface of Duna and the rover, now referred to as Crust Crawler, is ready to explore the planet. Not far north is a polar ice cap.  Time to set off.

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