The Cygnus has its wings again! After four attempts, the cargo tug is finally on its way to the International Space Station. The commercial spacecraft will deliver equipment and supplies to astronauts when it arrives at the station on December 9th.
Cygnus launching at sunset over Cuba, as seen from the International Space Station. Image credit: NASA/Scott Kelly
After the first launch attempt on December 3rd was scrubbed due to foul weather, a second scrubbed by gusting winds, and a third postponed for winds again, the Cygnus spacecraft launched at 4:44pm ET on December 6th. This is a return-to-flight mission: the first flight of the Cygnus since the previous spacecraft was destroyed during an Antares rocket explosion in October 2014. This is a journey of other firsts, too: the first of the new Enhanced Cygnus configuration, its first launch an an Atlas V rocket, and its first launch out of Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Atlas V blasting off on December 6, 2015. Image credit: ULA
The launch was absolutely picture-perfect. The countdown had no issues or holds. The Atlas V blasted off within a tenth of a second of the very start of the 30-minute window, firing both main and second stage boosters exactly as scheduled to deliver the Cgynus spacecraft to orbit in 21 minutes. Now the spacecraft will deploy its solar panels and use its newly-improved power system to sneak up on the International Space Station, arriving the morning of December 9, 2015. Astronauts will direct the Canadarm2 to grapple the spacecraft, pulling it in to dock later that day.
OA4 mission plaque moved over to active status in the mission control room. Image credit: Royce Renfew
The return to flight mission is using both a new launch configuration and a new spacecraft. This is the first launch using an United Launch Alliance Atlas V instead of the Orbital ATK Antares until they finish upgrading their rockets with new RD-181 engines.
December 3, 2015: A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with Orbital ATK’s Cygnus cargo spacecraft awaits its launch window at Space Launch Complex 41, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Image credit: ULA
This is also the first launch of the Enhanced Cygnus, as the spacecraft has been modified with a larger cargo module (increasing volume by 25% and payload mass by 1,200 kilograms) and more mass-efficient service module with upgraded power systems and Ultraflex solar arrays.
S.S. Deke Slayton II is a tribute to the Mercury astronaut of the same name. Image credit: NASA
The fourth Cygnus commercial resupply service is named S.S. Deke Slayton II in tribute to the astronaut of the same name for pioneering commercial spaceflight. Slayton was a decorated Air Force test pilot before being selected as one of NASA’s original astronauts, the Mercury 7. After being grounded for a heart arrhythmia during the Mercury program, he became the first Chief of the Astronauts Office and ran crew selection for Gemini and Apollo missions including the Moon landing. He eventually received medical clearance to participate in the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, then took up monitoring testing for the space shuttles.
When Slayton retired from the space agency, he became an advocate and driving force behind the development of commercial spaceflight. He served as president of Space Services, Inc, and was the flight director for the launch of the first commercial rocket, Conestoga. He continued his public service on the Commercial Space Advisory Committee for the Department of Transportation.
Slayton died from a malignant brain tumour in 1993.
The Canadarm2 empty and waiting for the arrival of Cygnus. Image credit: NASA
Once the spacecraft reaches orbit, it won’t intercept the station until two and a half days later. A pair of NASA astronauts, Kjell Lindgren and Scott Kelly, will manipulate the Canadarm2 into grappling the cargo ship and pulling it close to the station. This will be the first time any cargo ship is berthed to the Earth-facing port on the Unity module, opened as part of station reconfigurations for future commercial crew missions.
Keeping astronauts equipped is getting rough. Since the previous Antares/Cygnus explosion, only two of three SpaceX launch attempts succeeded (the third exploded in June), and four of five Russian Progress cargo tugs made it to the station (the fifth went astray in April). The only launch of the Japanese HTV succeeded. After all the disasters, the astronauts are well-supplied with basic necessities like food, water, and air, but are running low on critical parts for repairs, and on equipment for science experiments.
BASS-M flame tests will characterize the behaviour of flame-resistant materials in space. Image credit: NASA
Cygnus’ cargo is a mix of essential supplies and equipment, research materials, and personal goods. The notable projects buried in the 3,500 kilograms (7,700 pounds) of cargo are:
- Microsoft HoloLens devices for NASA’s Sidekick project;
- an improved jet pack, SAFER, for spacewalks;
- a microsatellite deployer with microsatellite;
- Space Automated Bioproduct Lab (SABL), a new life science facility for growing cell cultures, bacteria and other microgranisms;
- Packed Bed Reactor Experiment (PBRE), an investigation into mixtures of gas and liquids flowing through porous media (like reactors, scrubbers, and strippers);
- experiments to characterize the behaviour of molten steel;
- Burning and Suppression of Solids – Milliken (BASS-M), an evaluation of flame-resistant textiles in space;
- a pair of Node satellites as a technology demonstration on new network capabilities essential to spacecraft swarms;
- a pair of Astro Pis, specially augmented Raspberry Pi microcomputers loaded with experimental Python programs written by school children; and
- next-generation Nitrogen/Oxygen Recharge System (NORS) tanks.
Cygnus is also carrying LeVar Burton’s Rhino Book for the Storytime from Space project for astronauts reading Earth children stories. Image credit: Reading Rainbow
The spacecraft will stay attached to the space station while astronauts unload materials then repack it with nearly 1,400 kilograms (3,000 pounds) of garbage. It’ll detach from the station approximately a month later, heading for a fiery death during destructive reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere in January 2016.
The Cygnus launch is the first flight for the vessel since the previous Cygnus was destroyed by an Antares rocket explosion in October 2014. It is the fourth launch of Orbital’s commercial resupply contract.
You can rewatch the launch here:
Top image: The Atlas V blasting off on December 6, 2015. Credit: NASA/Mika McKinnon