A Look at the Science and Experiments Flying Aboard Cygnus 'Deke Slayton II' to ISS

The Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft on a previous ISS resupply flight for NASA. Photo Credit: NASA

The Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft on a previous ISS resupply flight for NASA. Photo Credit: NASA

In the early evening hours of December 6, a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas-V rocket carrying Orbital ATK’s Cygnus cargo spacecraft, named Deke Slayton II, thundered into the clouds at 4:44 pm EST, headed for the International Space Station (ISS) from Cape Canaveral AFS Space Launch Complex 41. The spacecraft as a whole, packed with over 7,300 pounds of cargo (over 7,700 pounds total with packaging), weighed in at over 16,500 pounds when it roared off the launch pad, marking the heaviest Atlas-V payload ULA has ever flown and the first commercial cargo mission for the launch services company.

A variety of supplies and equipment are onboard Cygnus, along with several children books to read to kids by astronauts from space as part of ‘NASA’s Story Time From Space’ program. Levar Burton’s first children’s book “The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm” and former astronaut Mark Kelly’s books “Mousetronaut” and “Mousetronaut Goes to Mars” are among the stories Cygnus carries, along with a variety of important science experiments to be performed during current and future expeditions aboard the $100 billion orbiting laboratory.

NASA held an ISS Science, Research, and Technology panel on Wednesday, December 2, to discuss the science and experiments launching aboard the Cygnus spacecraft CRS-4 mission. Photo Credit: Talia Landman / AmericaSpace

NASA held an ISS Science, Research, and Technology panel on Wednesday, Dec. 2, to discuss the science and experiments launching aboard the Cygnus spacecraft CRS-4 mission. Photo Credit: Talia Landman / AmericaSpace

Sunday’s flight, known as CRS-4 or OA-4, was the return to flight mission for Orbital ATK’s Cygnus spacecraft since the loss of their ORB-3 mission at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia last year. Over a year of hard work and dedication has gone into preparing their new cargo freighter for last Sunday’s long-awaited launch from Cape Canaveral on an Atlas-V rocket, while the company works to get their Antares rocket ready for launches from Wallops again starting next spring or summer

Some of Cygnus’ valuable research investigations and science experiments include CubeSat projects led by elementary and college students, experiments designed by NASA scientists and engineers, and new technologies that could make living in space safer and more efficient. Precious science aboard Cygnus will also support NASA on the agency’s “Journey to Mars” plans over the next several decades.

The International Space Station Robotic External Leak Locator (IRELL) is a “robotic, remote-controlled tool” that could help detect and locate an external leak aboard the ISS. Critical resources, like the ammonia used to help regulate the cooling system aboard the station, leaking into space could pose great threats to the astronauts on board if not detected early enough. IRELL will go through a number of tests to determine its performance before it is put to work on the space station. When the IRELL tool is pointed at a leak, a signal goes up. The closer IRELL gets to the leak, the higher the signal—no spacewalk necessary. If this concept developed by the Engineering Directorate at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) and the Satellite Serving Capabilities Office (SSCO) at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) is proven successful, the new tool could greatly reduce the time astronauts spend on spacewalks searching for and repairing external leaks on the orbiting laboratory. In the future IRELL could be used with other programs and vehicles traveling to low-Earth orbit (LEO) or on long distance missions like Mars.

Packed bed reactors on the ISS are used in water-recovery systems, fuel cells, and a variety of other equipment but none are designed to accommodate the simultaneous flow of both liquid and gas. The Packed Bed Reactor Experiment (PBRE) observes gases and liquids and how they behave while flowing simultaneously through a column filled with fixed porous packing of different shapes and materials. The “porous media” are frequently used in chemical engineering to stimulate contact between two immiscible fluid phases. The packed columns in this experiment may serve as strippers, scrubbers, reactors, etc., in systems where interphase contact is needed on or off the Earth. There are currently no design methods available for two-phase flow in packed beds in microgravity, or optimally designed two-phase flow equipment for space applications. Engineers want to design more efficient equipment for heat/mass transfer in space by increasing the operational life and reducing excess weight and energy consumption. PBRE will provide engineers the data they need to develop the guidelines to design and operate packed bed reactors for missions in hostile environments such as microgravity, on the lunar surface, and on Mars.

Inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility high bay at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, technicians transfer supplies and hardware into the Orbital ATK Cygnus pressurized module during late stowage operations. Photo Credit: NASA / Dimitri Gerondidakis

Inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, technicians transfer supplies and hardware into the Orbital ATK Cygnus pressurized module during late stowage operations. Photo Credit: NASA / Dimitri Gerondidakis

Another experiment, Burning and Suppression of Solids – Milliken (BASS-M), will assess flame retardant and resistant textiles as a means of protection from fire-related hazards. Microgravity provides a unique environment to study how flames react with certain materials. The BASS-M experiment will benefit those who need to wear protective clothing such as firefighters, military personnel, and those in the energy and the electrical industries.

“What’s a very unique and very tangible application of this experiment, is these enhancements and improvements to these materials could actually be used to save lives,” explained Ken Shields, director of Operations and Education Outreach at the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS). “Those [are] first responders, electrical workers, and firefighters in general. So, this is a great example, once again, of how industry and the private sector can exploit the International Space Station National Laboratory and microgravity in general.”

St. Thomas More student holds the STMSat-1 CubeSat. Credit: St. Thomas More Cathedral School. Photo and Caption: NASA

St. Thomas More student holds the STMSat-1 CubeSat. Credit: St. Thomas More Cathedral School. Photo and Caption: NASA

A new life science facility, the Space Automated Bioproduct Lab (SABL), was designed to support numerous fundamental, applied, and commercial space life sciences research, including education-based experiments benefiting K-12 and university students. Research on microorganisms (bacteria, yeast, algae, fungi, and viruses) and animal cells and tissues and small plant and animal organisms will be supported by SABL.

NanoRacks-MicroSat-SIMPL will be the first NanoRacks microsatellite deployed from the space station and the first propulsion-capable satellite deployed from Kaber, a NanoRacks-MicroSat-Deployer. SIMPL is a modular, hyper integrated satellite designed to provide all functions of a traditional satellite but in a nanosatellite scale.

Three small research satellites, known as CubeSats, are also included in the 7,300 pounds of cargo inside the Cygnus spacecraft. Two universities and one primary school were selected as part of the ninth installment of the Educational Launch of Nanosatellite (ELaNa) missions. Basic standard CubeSat dimensions are 1 unit (1U), or 10x10x10 cm, but can be up to 6U in size. They weigh less than 3 pounds per unit and are deployed from standard dispensers.

Nearly 400 pre-k to 8th grade students at St. Thomas More Cathedral School in Arlington, Va., participated in the design, building, and testing of the St. Thomas More (STM)Sat-1 spacecraft. Around the world, more than 10,000 students will be included in the mission as STMSat-1 sends images to their Remote Mission Operation Centers as it flies over their school. STMSat-1 will be NASA’s first CubeSat launched for a primary school.

“We involved the students in every aspect,” said Eleanor McCormack, principal at St. Thomas More Cathedral School. “Here you can see students building our antenna that will receive images from the camera that’s on the CubeSat. The children were highly involved in the building of the antennae. Every student touched or turned a screw, or in some way put it together, took it apart, put it together … So that we would gain an understanding of what this piece was that now sits on top of the school and has the receiver for the images to come through.”

The University of Michigan’s CubeSat investigating Atomospheric Density Response to Extreme driving, or CADRE, is a space weather investigation that will provide us answers regarding the dynamics of the upper layers of our atmosphere. CADRE will provide researchers who have upper atmospheric weather models with data that can help validate their models. It will provide data on the changes in density as energy is added in the upper atmosphere. This is helpful for predicting the orbits of satellite and preventing collisions.

A science investigation to study solar flares, active regions, the quiescent sun, and their impact on Earth’s upper atmosphere was also launched on Sunday’s OA-4 cargo mission to the ISS. Built by students at the University of Colorado in Boulder, the Miniature X-Ray Solar Spectrometer (MinXSS) will study the energy distribution from the Sun in “soft X-rays” which dig into the Earth’s ionosphere, thermosphere, and mesosphere. MinXSS is equipped with a Sun Position Sensor and X-ray Photometer to provide accurate knowledge of the solar position and broadband X-ray comparisons that may be used in science processing.

Cygnus will be grappled at approximately 6:10 a.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 9. Expedition 45 astronaut Kjell Lindgren will lead the rendevouz, capture, and berthing of the Cygnus spacecraft. Commander Scott Kelly will serve as back up. Follow our live launch tracker for updates on the mission and a live webcast of the capture.

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