Cygnus launches to space station with new experiments on board

The Cygnus cargo vehicle was successfully launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida at 11:05pm EST to begin its 3-day journey to the International Space Station (ISS).

Launching on top of United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket, Cygnus was carrying 7,500 pounds of food, water, science experiments, and other necessary supplies.

Now that Cygnus has successfully launched, it will take 2 days to get into a higher orbit above the Earth. On its third day, the spacecraft will dock with ISS. Crew on board will unpack Cygnus and, after about 2 months, Cygnus will be filled with trash and released from the ISS to start its trip home.

Cygnus OA-6 mission profile / Image courtesy of Orbital ATK

Cygnus OA-6 mission profile / Image courtesy of Orbital ATK

Among Cygnus’ scientific cargo is a 3-D printer, a “Gecko Gripper” study, and a large-scale fire experiment.

Made in Space, a 3D printing company, has partnered with NASA to send the first commercial manufacturing facility to the ISS. Their 3D printer, known as the Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF), already has 20 paying companies signed up to use it.

Gecko Gripper, a NASA-led study, involves an adhesive technology designed after the specialized hairs on a Gecko’s feet that allow them to stick to vertical surfaces without falling. According to NASA, the technology “promises to enable many new capabilities, including robotic crawlers that could walk along spacecraft exteriors; grippers that use a touch-to-stick method to catch and release objects; and sensor mounts that can work on any surface and reused multiple times.”

On previous missions, Cygnus would leave the station and simply burn up in the atmosphere. For this mission, however, there is another science experiment known as Saffire that will be conducted inside the spacecraft as it begins its journey back to Earth.

Saffire will be NASA’s first large-scale microgravity fire experiment. When Cygnus leaves station about 2 months from now, a swath of cloth will be remotely ignited and sensors on board will track the results. Cygnus will stay in orbit around the Earth long enough for the experimental data to be downlinked to a ground station.

About 9-10 days after Cygnus leaves the ISS, it will descend to Earth and burn up in the atmosphere.

Today’s mission, known as OA-6, is Orbital ATK’s sixth Cygnus spacecraft and their fifth operational Cygnus mission to the ISS. In October, 2014, one Cygnus resupply mission was lost due to an explosion of an Antares rocket.

The Cygnus spacecraft was developed specifically for the purpose of ISS resupply missions under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. SpaceX was the only other company to receive initial resupply contracts under COTS in 2008.

In January, NASA announced that they were extending the life of these resupply contracts to SpaceX and Orbital ATK, and that they were including a third winner in this round: the Sierra Nevada Corporation. From 2019 to 2024, each of these three companies will be responsible for a minimum of six supply mission to the ISS.

Today’s launch was the fifth of 10 Cygnus supply missions ordered by NASA in the first round of COTS contracts. The next US supply mission to the ISS will be provided by SpaceX on a launch that’s scheduled to take place April 8th.