A Look at the Science and Experiments Aboard Cygnus 'Rick Husband'

Expedition 47 crew member Tim Kopra captured this photograph of OA-6 Cygnus before the berthing early this morning. “#Cygnus when it was on its way to #ISS- the SS Rick Husband. @Orbital_ATK @Space_Station.” Credit: Tim Kopra/ @astro_tim on Twitter

Expedition 47 crew member Tim Kopra captured this photograph of OA-6 Cygnus before the berthing early this morning. “#Cygnus when it was on its way to #ISS- the SS Rick Husband. @Orbital_ATK @Space_Station.” Credit: Tim Kopra/ @astro_tim on Twitter

On Saturday, March 26, Orbital ATK’s Cygnus resupply ship, named after the late astronaut Rick Husband, arrived at the International Space Station (ISS), with rendezvous and capture occurring at 6:51 a.m. EDT. Cygnus reached orbit Tuesday evening after a successful launch atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas-V 401 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex (SLC)–41 in Florida. The OA-6 mission is the second flight of the enhanced Cygnus cargo ship and second time flying aboard an Atlas-V rocket. Cygnus was successfully berthed to the Earth-facing “nadir” port of the ISS’s Unity node at 10:52 a.m. EDT. On board the unmanned Cygnus cargo ship are scientific experiments and equipment for the station’s Expedition 47 and 48 crews.

Orbital ATK enhanced Cygnus OA-6 resupply spacecraft inside the cleanroom before encapsulation. Credit: Talia Landman/Americaspace.com

Orbital ATK enhanced Cygnus OA-6 resupply spacecraft inside the cleanroom before encapsulation. Credit: Talia Landman/Americaspace.com

Orbital ATK’s fifth contracted resupply mission to the ISS, known as Orbital ATK CRS-6, used the enhanced Cygnus for the second time. The enhanced Cygnus flew its inaugural flight on the previous OA-4 mission that launched in December 2015. This new and improved cargo resupply craft offers a plethora of new technology and greater capability than its predecessor. The improvements to Cygnus allow it to be launched off both the Atlas V and the Antares rocket (expected to return to flight sometime this year). The enhanced Cygnus boasts a 25 percent increase in volume and a decrease in mass, offering more room for cargo to be delivered to the ISS. It is designed to hold up to 7,700 lbs (3,500 kg) of payload; meanwhile, its predecessor had a maximum payload of 5,070 lbs (2,300 kg). Besides greater payload capabilities and flexibility, Orbital ATK’s enhanced Cygnus also features new fuel tanks and UltraFlexTM solar arrays.

The science and experiments delivered this morning will study meteors, adhesion, fire, regolith, and 3-D printing in microgravity. Besides those experiments, the nearly 7,500 lbs (3,401 kg) of cargo onboard Cygnus also consists of equipment that will support 250 other experiments on the ISS. These experiments will perform research pertaining to the fields of biology, biotechnology, physical science, and Earth science. Many of these experiments to be performed in space will provide solutions to improve life on Earth.

A view of the contents of two of Strata-1's tubes. The regolith simulant on the left is a simplified model consisting of angular fragments of colored glass, sorted into three sizes. The tube on the right contains pulverized meteorite material to closely resemble the actual regolith on a small asteroid, also sorted into three sizes. Credits: NASA

A view of the contents of two of Strata-1’s tubes. The regolith simulant on the left is a simplified model consisting of angular fragments of colored glass, sorted into three sizes. The tube on the right contains pulverized meteorite material to closely resemble the actual regolith on a small asteroid, also sorted into three sizes.
Credits: NASA

Strata-1 will study the fundamental properties of regolith (impact-shattered “soil”) on small airless bodies. This investigation will help NASA determine how regolith behaves in microgravity, the ease or difficulty of anchoring a spacecraft in regolith, how it interacts with the spacecraft and materials spacesuits are made out of, and how to safely move large volumes of regolith without risk. Unlike the soil found on Earth, regolith does not contain any living material, and it is currently unknown how regolith behaves on airless bodies. Strata-1 will expose regolith simulants, such as meteorite material, glass beads, and regolith simulants made up of Earthy materials and stored inside a number of transparent tubes, to the extended microgravity on the ISS. Scientists will monitor the changes in regolith via video images and examinations once the samples return to Earth. The information gathered from Strata-1 can be used to support NASA missions such as Asteroid Redirect Mission, OSIRIS-REx mission, and Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR), among many others.

Gecko Gripper is an investigation that will test a gecko-inspired adhesive gripping device that can stick in the environment of space. Geckos have special hair on their feet called setae that allow them to stick to surfaces vertically without falling. The Gecko Gripper study involves tiny hairs much thinner than a human hair that act like the setae on gecko feet. When force is applied, the tiny hairs bend and “the positively charged part of a molecule within a slight electrical field attracts the negative charged part of its neighbor resulting in ‘stickiness.’” The grippers can hold up to 20 pounds and easily be reused and removed. As outlined in a previous AmericaSpace article, this technology can also be used to grip onto the 500,000 pieces of orbital debris that can cause significant harm to the ISS, or any spacecraft, should a chunk wind up in its path. With orbital debris traveling at speeds up to 175,000 mph, even an impact from a small chip of paint can result in great damage or loss of life.

The Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF) delivered on Cygnus is twice the size of the one before it. Additive manufacturing is the process of building an object layer-by-layer, also known as 3-D printing. The process of 3-D printing saves money, labor, and production time. AMF uses an extrusion-based method, which has already been demonstrated successfully in zero gravity by Made in Space. The AMF can produce components such from a number of space-related composites. The versatility of the AMF makes it possible to produce parts, tools, experiments, and much more on-demand. It will also be helpful for long term space travel should the crew need to make repairs but do not have the tools to do so. The AMF is designed to last for as long as the space station stays in operation and accessible by the crew at all times.

The Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF) at Made in Space headquarters. Credits: Made in Space

The Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF) at Made in Space headquarters.
Credits: Made in Space

The Meteor Composition Determination experiment (Meteor) will allow for space-based observations of meteors entering the Earths atmosphere, which is difficult to monitor from the ground. The experiment uses high-resolution video and image analysis of Earth’s atmosphere to determine physical and chemical properties of the dust from the meteoroid. The research gathered from Meteor may also provide clues about the parent comet or asteroid the meteoroid dust came from, and spot unforeseen meteors, like the one that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2013. Widening our understanding of meteors will also provide clues on how the planets developed in our Solar System.

The Spacecraft Fire Experiment-1 (Saffire-1) experiment will not take place until the empty Cygnus supply vehicle departs from the ISS and is a great distance away from the orbital outpost. The first of three Saffire experiments, Saffire-1 will study how flames grow and spread on across a number of combustible materials in space. The experiment will be operated remotely inside a 3×5-foot module that is divided into two compartments. One side houses the avionics bay that holds the sensors, signal processing equipment, and high definition video. The opposite holds the hardware needed to ignite a large fire and burn the materials inside. Instruments on Cygnus will measure oxygen use, flame growth, and more. This will help scientists understand how microgravity affects flame size and flammability limits for spacecraft materials. This experiment is especially important for sending astronauts on long-duration spaceflight missions like the journey to Mars.

Cygnus is safely docked with the ISS and the crew plans to open the hatch Sunday morning, March 27.

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Missions » ISS » COTS » CYGNUS » Missions » ISS » COTS » CYGNUS » OA-6 »

1 comment to A Look at the Science and Experiments Aboard Cygnus ‘Rick Husband’

  • Vladislaw

    I look forward to see some of the 3D printing with the new printer. It has several upgrades and can now use 30 materials instead of 20 that old one could use.