Orbital ATK’s un-crewed Cygnus cargo ship arrived at the International Space Station (ISS) this morning, following launch from Wallops Flight Facility, Virginia on May 21. Expedition 55 Flight Engineer and NASA Astronaut Scott Tingle successfully captured Cygnus using the Space Station’s Canadian-made robotic arm (named Canadarm2), and was backed by fellow NASA Astronauts Ricky Arnold and Drew Feustel, who both conducted a 6.5 hours spacewalk last week.
The spacecraft is named in honor of former NASA Deputy Administrator and senior Orbital executive James “J.R.” Thompson, who died last year, and its arrival marks Orbital ATK’s ninth successful berthing with the orbiting laboratory.
Following arrival and capture, Cygnus was bolted into place on the Station’s Earth-facing port of the Unity module at 8:13 a.m. EDT, where it will now spend about seven weeks before departing in July. Onboard is about 7,400 pounds of cargo, supplies and scientific experiments to support Expedition 55 and 56, including research investigations in quantum physics, advanced genetic sequencing of micro-organisms and liquid-liquid separation, together with a group of deployable CubeSats for Earth science, laser communications and astrophysics.
“Against the backdrop of a flawless rendezvous and berthing, Cygnus once again demonstrated its ability to perform as a trusted and valued mission partner to NASA and the crew on the International Space Station,” said Frank Culbertson, President of Orbital ATK’s Space Systems Group. “Once we finish delivering vital supplies and scientific equipment, our work continues after departure with the deployment of several CubeSats. These secondary missions further highlight the flexibility and versatility of Cygnus beyond cargo delivery and disposal.”
The Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) is a multi-user facility to achieve—via laser cooling—and observe ultra-cold quantum gases, as part of efforts to understand atom wave functions and develop future sensors for gravitational and magnetic fields, quantum computers and atomic clocks for spacecraft navigation. The CAL will achieve temperatures ten billion times cooler than the vacuum of space, slowing down atoms with lasers and magnetic forces until they are almost motionless, and examining them for far longer than is possible on Earth. Typically, CAL operations will be conducted during crew sleep, to minimize the potential of microgravity disturbances.
The International Commercial Experiment, nicknamed “ICE Cubes”, will be housed inside the Columbus lab and permit the running of experiments for up to four months at a time. The ICE Cubes units are small, modular containers, about the same size as a microwave oven, which can be easily slotted into payload racks aboard the lab. The Biomolecule Extraction and Sequencing Technology (BEST) investigation will permit the identification and sequencing of unknown microbial organisms aboard the ISS, using a swabs-to-sequencer methodology that eliminates the need for cultivation ahead of processing. And the Continuous Liquid-Liquid Separation in Microgravity experiment will employ surface forces to accomplish liquid-liquid extraction, a process which may find terrestrial benefits to achieve flow-rates suitable for chemical production.
Cygnus also brings CubeSats with it in support of Earth science, laser communications and astrophysics research. The Temporal Experiment for Storms and Tropical Systems-Demonstration (TEMPEST-D) will conduct radiometric measurements of global cloud and precipitation processes, as part of efforts to better understand Earth’s water cycle. Another experiment, Radix, seeks to demonstrate technologies for the first commercial optical data-relay system. Likened to NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System (TDRSS), “but faster, updated, more flexible and available to commercial clients”, Radix technology is expected to greatly enhance Earth observation and monitoring science for various providers, as well as increasing mission payload utilities. Another CubeSat, dubbed “HaloSat”, wil examine the hot galactic halo of X-rays from oxygen atoms surrounding our Milky Way Galaxy to determine matter quantities.
Unberthing and departure is tentatively scheduled for July 15, after which Cygnus—laden with 7,100 pounds of trash and unneeded equipment—will release six CubeSats as part of a secondary mission, before proceeding to a suicide dive to burn up safely in the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean.
Under the CRS-1 contract with NASA, Orbital ATK will deliver approximately 66,000 pounds (30,000 kilograms) of cargo to the ISS. Beginning in 2019, Orbital ATK will carry out a minimum of six initial cargo missions under NASA’s follow-on CRS-2 contract.
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