A Cygnus Came A'Calling: Orbital ATK's OA-6 Cargo Ship Arrives at Space Station

The 57.7-foot-long (17.6-meter) Canadarm2 robotic arm inches toward the OA-6 Cygnus cargo ship on Saturday, 26 March. Photo Credit: NASA/Tim Peake/Twitter

The 57.7-foot-long (17.6-meter) Canadarm2 robotic arm inches toward the OA-6 Cygnus cargo ship on Saturday, 26 March. Photo Credit: NASA/Tim Peake/Twitter

A little more than two days after its rousing Tuesday night liftoff from the storied Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., Orbital ATK has successfully delivered another Cygnus cargo ship to the International Space Station (ISS). The perfect rendezvous and capture of the OA-6 spacecraft at 6:51 a.m. EDT Saturday, followed by a physical berthing at the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) port of the station’s Unity node at 10:52 a.m. EDT, also came a couple of days after Expedition 47 Commander Tim Kopra shared a remarkable image of a vast crater in Western Africa with his 70,600 Twitter followers. The crater obviously impressed his newly-arrived crewmate Jeff Williams. “@Astro_Jeff calls this the Earth’s bull’s eye,” Kopra tweeted Thursday.

And certainly, the Expedition 47 crew—which, in addition to Kopra and Williams, also includes Russian cosmonauts Yuri Malenchenko, Oleg Skripochka and Alexei Ovchinin, together with Britain’s Tim Peake—scored a bull’s eye of their own by snaring OA-6 with the 57.7-foot-long (17.6-meter) Canadarm2 robotic arm. This weekend is expected to be a busy one, as the crew opens the hatch into Cygnus early Sunday and accesses some 7,228.9 pounds (3,279 kg) of supplies.  

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'Those Things Don't Happen By Accident': 20 Years Since 'The Spirit of '76' (Part 1)

STS-76 was the fourth shuttle mission to rendezvous, and the third to dock, with Russia's Mir space station. It also marked the first shuttle mission to deliver a long-duration crew member and return to Earth with a smaller crew than that with which it launched. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

STS-76 was the fourth shuttle mission to rendezvous, and the third to dock, with Russia’s Mir space station. It also marked the first shuttle mission to deliver a long-duration crew member and return to Earth with a smaller crew than that with which it launched. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

Twenty years ago, this week, the crew of Shuttle Atlantis rocketed to orbit, bound for a docking with the Mir space station. It was the third occasion—following STS-71 in June 1995 and STS-74 in November 1995—that the United States had accomplished a physical docking with Russia’s Earth-circling outpost and the fourth time that a member of NASA’s shuttle fleet had performed rendezvous with a space station. However, when Commander Kevin Chilton, Pilot Rick Searfoss, and Mission Specialists Linda Godwin, Rich Clifford, Ron Sega, and Shannon Lucid boarded Mir on 24 March 1996, their STS-76 mission differed from its predecessors in two important aspects: They would perform the first U.S. spacewalk outside a space station since the Skylab era and, for the first time, would transfer an astronaut to Mir for a long-duration stay. In so doing, Chilton’s crew was the first shuttle team in history to land with fewer astronauts than it had on launch.

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Kepler Observes Supernova's Shockwave in Visible Light for First Time

An artist's impression of a supernova explosion. With the help of NASA's Kepler space telescope, astronomers were able to observe for the first time the exact moment when the shockwave from a supernova reaches the surface of the progenitor star just before the latter explodes. Image Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

An artist’s impression of a supernova explosion. With the help of NASA’s Kepler space telescope, astronomers were able to observe for the first time the exact moment when the shockwave from a supernova reaches the surface of the progenitor star just before the latter explodes. Image Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

One of the most impressive deep-sky spectacles for professional and seasoned amateur astronomers alike are supernova explosions. Signifying the end stages in the lives of stars that are more massive than the Sun, supernovae are transient powerhouses of tremendous force that are integral in the perpetual cosmic cycle of life and death and the recycling of interstellar material that eventually gives rise to the next generation of stars and planetary systems. Even though astronomers have gained much understanding about the physical processes that drive these cosmic fireworks in the last couple of decades, many of the underlying details have remained sketchy to date. NASA’s Kepler space telescope recently added one important piece of knowledge to astronomers’ picture of supernovae, by directly observing its shockwave in visible wavelengths for the first time—the bright flash that immediately precedes the explosion itself before the progenitor star is completely torn apart.

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Pluto Once Had Rivers and Lakes of Liquid Nitrogen, New Horizons Data Suggests

Artist's conception of Pluto's surface, with the distant Sun and largest moon Charon in the sky. The surface is frozen now, but evidence suggests that rivers and lakes of liquid nitrogen once flowed here. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Alex Parker

Artist’s conception of Pluto’s surface, with the distant Sun and largest moon Charon in the sky. The surface is frozen now, but evidence suggests that rivers and lakes of liquid nitrogen once flowed here. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Alex Parker

As has been discussed extensively now on AmericaSpace, New Horizons has revealed Pluto to be a place unlike any other in the Solar System, with vast plains and glaciers of nitrogen ice, tall mountains of solid water ice capped with methane snow, layers of haze in its atmosphere, and perhaps an ocean of water below the surface. Now, there is additional evidence that Pluto once had rivers and lakes of liquid nitrogen on its surface, during times when the atmosphere was thicker than it is now. Just when you think Pluto can’t get any more bizarre, it does.

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Spectacular Atlas V Launch Carries Rick Husband Back to Space

The spectacular OA-6 launch provided an additional light source for onlookers at the Cape. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace

The spectacular OA-6 launch provided an additional light source for onlookers at the Cape. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace

More than a decade after his mortal life was lost, along with his crew, during the final, tragic re-entry of Shuttle Columbia, veteran astronaut Rick Husband was posthumously granted a second opportunity to visit the International Space Station (ISS) tonight (Tuesday, 22 March). A mighty United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 401 booster successfully delivered Orbital ATK’s OA-6 Cygnus cargo ship into low-Earth orbit, en-route for a Saturday arrival at the multi-national outpost. Liftoff from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., took place on-time at 11:05 p.m. EDT. As has become traditional in its Cygnus operations, Orbital ATK named OA-6 in honor of an individual who had contributed substantially to the goals of commercial spaceflight or exploration: in this case, paying tribute to Husband’s unique “spirit for exploration.”

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James Webb’s Critical Science Component Completes Essential Tests, While Telescope Is “Optically Complete”

NASA engineer Ernie Wright looks on as the first six of eighteen flight ready James Webb Space Telescope's primary mirror segments are prepped to begin final cryogenic testing at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. Photo Credit: NASA/MSFC/David Higginbotham

NASA engineer Ernie Wright looks on as the first six of eighteen flight ready James Webb Space Telescope’s primary mirror segments are prepped to begin final cryogenic testing at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (photo previously published). Photo Credit: NASA/MSFC/David Higginbotham

Less than 36 months from its launch, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), a NASA, European Space Agency (ESA), and Canadian Space Agency (CSA) collaboration touted as “Hubble’s successor,” continues to take shape right on schedule. Yesterday, NASA announced that the telescope’s Integrated Science Instrument Module (ISIM), described as the “scientific heart” of JWST, has completed its last round of essential cryogenic tests. In addition, the telescope has been deemed “officially optically complete.” NASA announced that JWST received the last mirrors in its optical path on Sunday, March 6th. Engineers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, have been working around the clock to ensure JWST is ready to fly in October 2018, even working right through this winter’s severe snowstorms.

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ULA Stands Ready to Deliver Second Orbital ATK Cygnus to Space Station on Tuesday Night

Orbital ATK's OA-6 Cygnus spacecraft is readied for its 22 March launch to the International Space Station (ISS). Photo Credit: Talia Landman / AmericaSpace

Orbital ATK’s OA-6 Cygnus spacecraft is readied for its 22 March launch to the International Space Station (ISS). Photo Credit: Talia Landman / AmericaSpace

Barely a month since the last of its kind—the OA-4 mission—returned to a fiery demise in Earth’s atmosphere, Orbital ATK will deliver another Cygnus cargo ship towards the International Space Station (ISS) on Tuesday, 22 March. Coming five weeks after the 19 February departure of its predecessor, the OA-6 launch represents the shortest interval between two visiting vehicles by either of NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) providers. Like OA-4, Tuesday’s mission will fly atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 401 booster from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., and will benefit from the lower mass, greater power and larger payload capabilities of the Enhanced Cygnus spacecraft. The OA-6 flight will deliver 7,228.9 pounds (3,279 kg) of payloads and supplies to the station’s incumbent Expedition 47 crew.

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Pluto Revealed: Five New Science Papers Highlight Discoveries by New Horizons

High-resolution view of Pluto from New Horizons. The large smoother area of ice is the western lobe of the “heart” feature. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

High-resolution view of Pluto from New Horizons. The large smoother area of ice in Sputnik Planum is the western lobe of the “heart” feature. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Pluto is a tiny world in the outer fringes of the Solar System; for many decades it was only a mere speck of light in even the best telescopes, with only vague hints of surface features. Then, in July 2015, the New Horizons spacecraft flew past Pluto, the first time ever that humanity would get to see this mysterious place up close—and it did not disappoint. An enormous amount of data has continued to be sent back by New Horizons since the flyby, and now five new papers have been published which provide an in-depth overview of the findings so far about Pluto and its moons. Pluto is an active world, with its own unique geology different from anywhere else in the Solar System.

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Size Matters: Astronomers Discover Rare, 'Super Spiral' Galaxies

A team of astronomers has recently discovered a total of 53 'super spiral' galaxies which are enormous in size, three of which are shown in the image above. The galaxies shown at the left and center images also exhibit a double nucleus, which could be the result of a past galactic merger. Image Credit: Sloan Digital Sky Survey

A team of astronomers has recently discovered a total of 53 ‘super spiral’ galaxies which are enormous in size, three of which are shown in the image above. The galaxies shown at the left and center images also exhibit a double nucleus, which could be the result of a past galactic merger. Image Credit: Sloan Digital Sky Survey

One of the essential aspects of astronomy is that of classification. Whatever their type, celestial objects are mainly categorised according to their basic properties like their size, mass, and brightness. For instance, on the realm of planetary bodies there are objects as small as Ceres and Pluto in our own Solar System as well as exoplanets with two times the size of Jupiter that have been found in orbit around other stars. The latter also exhibit a wide range of masses and sizes from 1/10 to more than a thousand times that of the Sun. When it comes to the specimens of the galactic zoo, these fall under three different categories: spiral, elliptical and irregular galaxies which similarly exhibit a wide range of sizes, with the biggest ones that had been found to date spanning more than 200,000 light-years across—twice that of our own galaxy, the Milky Way. Recently, astronomers were able to shatter this long-held record by announcing the unexpected discovery of a new population of galactic beasts, consisting of gigantic spiral galaxies that are up to four times larger than the Milky Way. In addition to their ‘wow’ factor, these ‘super spirals’ represent a challenge for astronomers in their efforts to determine how, contrary to theoretical models, these monstrous stellar cities can grow to such enormous sizes.

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Columbia's Final Commander Honored in Upcoming Cygnus Resupply Mission to ISS

Stunning perspective of the departure of the OA-4 Cygnus into the inky blackness. Less than six weeks later, the OA-6 Cygnus will soon approach the station. Photo Credit: NASA/Tim Peake/Twitter

Stunning perspective of the departure of the OA-4 Cygnus on 19 February. Less than six weeks later, the OA-6 Cygnus will transport a range of research payloads to the International Space Station (ISS) and will bear the name of an astronaut who actually helped build the orbital outpost. Photo Credit: NASA/Tim Peake/Twitter

In keeping with tradition, Orbital ATK’s next Cygnus cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS)—conducted under the language of a $1.9 billion contract, signed with NASA back in December 2008—will bear the name of a former U.S. astronaut. Scheduled for launch on Tuesday, 22 March, the OA-6 mission will honor Air Force Col. Rick Husband, who commanded the final voyage of shuttle Columbia in early 2003. Yet there exists a key difference between this Cygnus mission and the four previous successful flights of the unpiloted cargo ship: for Husband piloted STS-96, the first shuttle docking at the ISS in May 1999. “This mission is the first one to be named after an astronaut who actually participated in building the space station,” Orbital ATK announced. The company added that it was “proud to add Rick’s name to our legacy of cargo delivery to this outpost in space and to honor the memory of this brave and dedicated crew”.

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