Orbital ATK Showcases New ‘Enhanced Cygnus’, Ahead of 3 December OA-4 Launch

December's OA-4 mission marks the first flight of Orbital ATK's new "Enhanced Cygnus." Photo Credit: John Studwell/AmericaSpace
December’s OA-4 mission marks the first flight of Orbital ATK’s new “Enhanced Cygnus.” Photo Credit: John Studwell/AmericaSpace

Three weeks before its long-awaited return to flight, Orbital ATK today showed off its next Cygnus cargo spacecraft, which will deliver more than 7,000 pounds (3,100 kg) of supplies to the incumbent Expedition 45 crew of the International Space Station (ISS) in early December. The mission—designated “OA-4,” following the February 2015 merger of the Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp. and the Arlington, Va.-headquartered Alliant Techsystems, Inc. (ATK)—will be the first ISS-bound cargo mission to be executed under the auspices of the new space, defense and aviation systems giant. As well as representing the first Cygnus to fly since last year’s catastrophic loss of ORB-3, the mission will also demonstrate the new “Enhanced” configuration of the cargo ship, whose Pressurized Cargo Module (PCM) is longer and can deliver an approximately 60 percent larger haul of payloads and supplies than its predecessor. Today’s media event was held in NASA’s Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHSF) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), where the OA-4 spacecraft is undergoing final checkout, ahead of integration with its United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V booster.  

The year dawned badly for Orbital Sciences Corp., as it began a painful process of recovery, following the 28 October 2014 failure of the ORB-3 Cygnus, whose Antares 130 launch vehicle exploded in a fireball, just seconds after departing Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, Va. Named in honor of the late Deke Slayton—one of the “Original Seven” Mercury astronauts, grounded by a heart murmur, who directed NASA’s Flight Crew Operations Directorate (FCOD), before eventually flying on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP)—the ORB-3 mission was laden with Orbital’s largest-ever load of equipment and supplies for the space station’s Expedition 41 crew, totaling 5,050 pounds (2,290 kg). Its loss was subsequently blamed on a liquid oxygen turbopump failure and an explosion within one of its twin Aerojet Rocketdyne-furnished AJ-26 first-stage engines. In the weeks after the failure, Orbital contracted with ULA to deliver at least two future Cygnuses (OA-4 and March 2016’s OA-6) to the ISS, as it pressed ahead with established plans to introduce the upgraded Antares 230, with a first stage powered by Russian-built RD-181 engines. The first mission of this new booster is currently targeted to fly in May 2016, carrying the OA-5 Cygnus.

The OA-4 Cygnus spacecraft will be encapsulated within an Extra-Extended Payload Fairing (XEPF) atop ULA's Atlas V 401 booster. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace
The OA-4 Cygnus spacecraft will be encapsulated within an Extra-Extended Payload Fairing (XEPF) atop ULA’s Atlas V 401 booster. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace

In the meantime, last month, the Service Module (SM) for the OA-4 spacecraft arrived at KSC for final preparations, ahead of integration with the large PCM, whose design is based upon the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM), flown on several occasions between March 2001 and February 2011 aboard the shuttle. According to NASA, the PCM will carry 7,383 pounds (3,349 kg) of total cargo—the heaviest payload ever delivered into space aboard a Cygnus, some 40 percent greater than any of its predecessors—to support ongoing scientific research, maintenance, crew needs, and preparations for future spacewalks. AmericaSpace understands from NASA that 500 pounds (227 kg) of this heavyweight payload will be EVA equipment, which comprises generic hardware and tools for the U.S.-built Extravehicular Mobility Units (EMUs), including a new Simplified Aid for EVA Rescue (SAFER) backpack unit, space suit gloves and batteries, a Liquid Cooling and Ventilation Garment (LCVG) and tool bags/caddies. According to Novosti Kosmonavtiki, U.S. EVA-34 is tentatively placed in the January 2016 timeframe, tasked with continuing to lay cables for the forthcoming International Docking Adapter (IDA)-3, although it is not formally scheduled at present. If it does occur during this period, however, it would involve two of the three U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS) members of Expedition 46: NASA astronauts Scott Kelly and Tim Kopra and Britain’s Tim Peake.

In addition to the EVA equipment, the OA-4 Cygnus PCM will house 1,867 pounds (847 kg) of science investigations for the space station, most notably the Space Automated Bioproduct Lab (SABL), which will support a wide range of fundamental, applied and commercial life sciences experimentation, as well as education-based investigations for students from kindergarten through university-level. Research in SABL will focus on micro-organisms, such as bacteria, yeast, algae, fungi and viruses, to animals cells and tissues and even small plant and animal organisms. Another significant member of OA-4’s payload manifest is the first NanoRacks microsatellite ever to be deployed from the ISS. Known as the NanoRacks-Microsat-SIMPL, it consists of a modular, Hyper-Integrated Satellite (HiSat) and is reporteldy capable of providing complete satellite functionality on a nanosatellite scale. When released into space, it will become the first propulsion-capable satellite ever deployed from the NanoRacks-MicroSat-Deployer (Kaber). In addition to the science and EVA payloads, the OA-4 Cygnus will also transport 2,603 pounds (1,181 kg) of crew supplies, 2,220 pounds (1,007 kg) of vehicle hardware and 191 pounds (87 kg) of computer resources to the ISS.

Liftoff of the mission is scheduled to occur from the storied Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., with a 30-minute “window” running from 5:55 through 6:25 p.m. EST on 3 December. Both OA-4 and the next Cygnus flight, OA-6, scheduled for March 2016, will fly atop the “401” configuration of ULA’s Atlas V, equipped with a 13-foot-diameter (4-meter) Extra-Extended Payload Fairing (XEPF), no strap-on rocket boosters and a single-engine Centaur upper stage. This mission represents the 60th overall Atlas V mission, and the 30th in the rocket’s 401 configuration, since it first entered operational service, back in August 2002. According to ULA, the vehicle’s Russian-built RD-180 first-stage engine and a single burn of the Centaur will deliver the OA-4 Cygnus spacecraft into a circular orbit of 124.1 nautical miles (229.8 km), inclined 51.6 degrees to the equator.

An on-time launch will thus position the OA-4 spacecraft on course for a rendezvous and capture by the space station’s 57.7-foot-long (17.6-meter) Canadarm2 at about 6:05 a.m. EST on 6 December. For the first time, an unpiloted Visiting Vehicle (VV) will be berthed at the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) Common Berthing Mechanism (CBM) of the Unity node. This interface was opened up in May 2015, when its previous resident—the Leonardo Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM), in place since February 2011—was robotically detached and transferred to a new home on the Tranquility node. Previous Cygnuses, as well as SpaceX Dragons and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) H-II Transfer Vehicles (HTVs), have all berthed at the Harmony nadir port.

“Some internal work was done to prepare the CBM after the relocation of the PMM,” NASA told AmericaSpace, “mainly ensuring that power and data hookups were in place, just like they are on Harmony nadir to provide Cygnus with necessary hookups.” Leading the OA-4 rendezvous, capture and berthing campaign will be NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren, backed-up by Expedition 45 Commander Scott Kelly, both of whom will be stationed in the multi-windowed cupola. Assisting them will be Japan’s Kimiya Yui, who will be monitoring OA-4 telemetry on the Hardware Control Panel (HCP), and all three astronauts are expected to support the post-berthing outfitting of the Unity nadir CBM interface, prior to hatch opening and ingress into the Cygnus.

The ULA Atlas-V booster that will lift the Orbital ATK Enhanced Cygnus spacecraft into orbit arrives at the Space Launch Complex 41 Vertical Integration Facility on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Photo Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett
The ULA Atlas-V booster that will lift the Orbital ATK Enhanced Cygnus spacecraft into orbit arrives at the Space Launch Complex 41 Vertical Integration Facility on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Photo Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

Current projections suggest that OA-4 will remain berthed at the station for over seven weeks, until 25 January 2016, which is a far longer stay-time than any previous U.S. commercial cargo vehicle. Whereas its predecessor, the “Standard” Cygnus—which supported the inaugural ORB-D demonstration mission in September-October 2013, followed by the dedicated ORB-1 in January 2014, then ORB-2 in July 2014 and last October’s ill-fated ORB-3—the new “Enhanced” Cygnus is much larger. It stands 15.9 feet (4.86 meters) high, about 3.9 feet (1.2 meters) taller than the Standard Cygnus, and although their diameters are the same at 10.1 feet (3.07 meters), they upgraded variant is about 4,000 pounds (1,800 kg) more massive and can accommodate a larger volume of payload, about 950 cubic feet (27 cubic meters). The Enhanced Cygnus, which is also equipped with low-mass Ultraflex solar arrays, will be able to carry up to 7,100 pounds (3,200 kg) of payload when lofted atop the new Antares 230 and up to 7,700 pounds (3,500 kg) when launched by ULA’s Atlas V.

By utilizing the Enhanced Cygnus, Orbital ATK positions itself favorably to complete its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract to NASA. Under the terms of this $1.9 billion contract, signed back in December 2008, Orbital was required to deliver a total of 44,000 pounds (20,000 kg) of payloads and other supplies to the ISS on eight Cygnus missions by 2016. Delays in the development of the Antares booster and the MARS site—caused, in part, by technical troubles with liquid oxygen and other cryogenic tankage—pushed the inaugural “Demonstration” Cygnus mission (designated “ORB-D”) to September 2013. This was followed by a pair of dedicated flights (ORB-1 and ORB-2) in January and July 2014, ahead of last October’s catastrophic failure of ORB-3. It is hoped that the Enhanced Cygnus’ enlarged payload capacity will enable Orbital ATK to complete its original CRS requirement to NASA by 2017.

A growing tradition for each Cygnus flight has been to provide it with a name, in honor of an individual who has contributed to the goals of Orbital itself or, more broadly, to the commercial space exploration agenda. ORB-D was named in tribute of veteran astronaut and senior Orbital executive G. David Low—a key player in the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, before his untimely passing in February 2008—whilst ORB-1 bore the name of former shuttle commander C. Gordon Fullerton and ORB-2 honored five-time space flyer Janice Voss. Continuing the tradition, ORB-3 paid homage to Deke Slayton, although the journey to orbit of his namesake was sadly cut short, just seconds after liftoff. It is understood that the name will be revived for OA-4, which is officially known as “Spaceship Deke Slayton II.” It will be a fitting memorial for an astronaut whose would-be first flight into space was cruelly snatched from him, but who eventually reached orbit after a long and difficult journey to regain flight status.


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