Spaceflight Insider

OA-9 Cygnus resupply craft set for Monday morning launch to ISS

Orbital ATK's Antares rocket with the OA-9 Cygnus encapsulated on top is raised to the vertical position in advance of its launch. Photo Credit: Aubrey Gemignani / NASA

Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket with the OA-9 Cygnus encapsulated on top is raised to the vertical position in advance of its launch. Photo Credit: Aubrey Gemignani / NASA

WALLOPS ISLAND, Va. — Orbital ATK is set to send its next Cygnus resupply freighter to the International Space Station. The company’s OA-9 mission is currently aiming for a liftoff at 4:39 a.m. EDT (08:39 GMT) May 21, 2018, from Pad-0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility.

This date comes after a 24-hour slip from May 20 to allow more time for pre-launch processing and inspections, and to allow for improved weather. The May 21 date is expected to have an 80 percent chance of acceptable conditions for launch.

Late-load cargo is placed inside the Cygnus spacecraft. Photo Credit: Orbital ATK

Late-load cargo is placed inside the Cygnus spacecraft. Photo Credit: Orbital ATK

NASA has contracted with Orbital ATK, to launch supplies, equipment, and science to the ISS. The OA-9 mission will be the ninth operational flight carried out by Orbital ATK and the third mission launched atop the upgraded Antares 230 booster.

Orbital ATK was contracted to perform a total of 11 cargo runs under the first Commercial Resupply Service (CRS1) contract. Under its second CRS contract (CRS2), NASA awarded more flights to Orbital ATK and SpaceX. The space agency also added Sierra Nevada Corporation to the contract.

The first mission under CRS2 is currently slated to be provided by Orbital ATK, which is contracted to provide up to five more additional flights.

This will be the sixth flight of an enhanced Cygnus spacecraft. Three were launched using United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket. This is the third Cygnus slated to use an upgraded Antares 230 booster to get into space.

The Antares 230 rocket, along with the more powerful Castrol 30XL upper stage, allows Cygnus to carry up to 7,700 pounds (3,500 kilograms) of cargo to the ISS. The upgraded booster is powered by two NPO Energomash RD-181 first stage engines that, like their predecessor AJ-26 engines, burn a mixture of liquid oxygen and rocket grade kerosene.

Overall, the OA-9 mission, which was named the S.S. J.R. Thompson, is expected to deliver some 7,400 pounds (3,400 kilograms) of supplies, scientific equipment and experiments to the ISS. Most of the cargo was already loaded into the Cygnus spacecraft before being mated to the Antares launch vehicle. However, on May 15 the final cargo loading took place inside the Horizontal Integration Facility. This was completed the next day and was followed by the payload fairing being installed before the whole vehicle was rolled out to Pad-0A for launch operations.

In addition to all the supplies on board, the OA-9 cargo manifest also includes science payloads that are designed investigate old and new technologies on orbit.

One of the experiments, the Sextant Navigation investigation, is expected to test the use a hand-held sextant for emergency navigation on missions in deep space. In the event of a failure of communications systems or flight computers, using sextants to sight angles between the moon or planets and stars could give astronauts another way of navigating their way in the cosmos.

Antares is rolled out to Pad-0A. Photo Credit: Aubrey Gemignani / NASA

Antares is rolled out to Pad-0A. Photo Credit: Aubrey Gemignani / NASA

“No need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to celestial navigation,” principal investigator Greg Holt said in a NASA news release. “We want a robust, mechanical back-up with as few parts and as little need for power as possible to get you back home safely.”

Sextants were widely used by early explorers to navigate across Earth’s oceans when no modern technology such as GPS devices existed.

Moreover, this wouldn’t be the first time sextants have been used in space. The Gemini missions in the 1960s first tested them in space. Additionally, Apollo spacecraft had one built in to use for navigation in the event of a communications failure. This was tested by Jim Lovell during the first manned mission to the Moon, Apollo 8, in December 1968.

Another experiment headed to the ISS is expected to try to detect tiny things. The Biomolecule Extraction and Sequencing Technology (BEST) experiment is designed to identify unknown microbial organisms using a process that sequences directly from a sample with minimal preparation, rather than with the traditional technique that requires growing a culture from the sample.

“That way, we can identify microbes that cannot be detected using traditional culturing methods, and we aren’t increasing the number of potential pathogens that might be present on the station,” said Sarah Wallace, the investigation’s principal investigator, in a NASA news release.

Adding these new processes to proven technology could open new avenues for in-flight research, including identifying the presence of microbial life, some of which might be harmful, and how microorganisms on the station change or adapt to spaceflight.

“With small modifications to our process, you can pretty much do any type of sequencing on the station,” Wallace said. “Until now, we had to bring samples back to the ground to see these changes. We know gene expression changes, but freezing a sample and bringing it back to the ground could result in alterations that not caused by the spaceflight environment. If we could look at it while on the station, it might look very different. There is so much to be gained from that real-time snapshot of gene expression. I think it will be key to a lot of research.”

An artist's rendering of the Cold Atom Lab, which will create a spot some 10 billion times colder than the vaccuum of space, according to NASA. Photo Credit: iGoal Animation / NASA

An artist’s rendering of the Cold Atom Lab, which will create a spot some 10 billion times colder than the vaccuum of space, according to NASA. Photo Credit: iGoal Animation / NASA

While microbes may be small, atoms are even smaller. NASA’s new Cold Atom Lab (CAL) is designed to look at those.

The CAL facility creates a cold environment—very cold. According to NASA, it is 10 billion times colder than the vacuum of space. It’s so cold that atoms can be slowed down to an almost motionless state using the facility’s lasers and magnetic forces it generates.

NASA said that doing this research in a microgravity environment allows observations of the ultra-cold atoms to be much longer in duration than on Earth. It’s hoped that the results of the research could lead to improved technologies such as quantum computers, sensors, and atomic clocks used in spacecraft navigation.

Cygnus won’t be the only spacecraft launching on the OA-9 mission. Of the many CubeSats being launched inside the cargo spacecraft, an experimental CubeSat called RainCube is also on the manifest.

Like other CubeSats, RainCube is a low-cost alternative to the more expensive full-scale satellites. The tiny satellite is expected to use Ka-band radar and an ultra-compact and lightweight Ka-band antenna to achieve the following three main mission objectives, according to NASA:

  • Develop, launch, and operate the first radar instrument on a 6U CubeSat
  • Demonstrate new technologies and provide space validation for a Ka-band (35.75 GHz) precipitation profiling radar. At platform altitude of 400 kilometers or fewer, demonstrate:
    • Radar sensitivity: 20dBZ or better
    • Vertical resolution: 250 meters
    • Horizontal resolution: 10 kilometers or better
  • Enable future precipitation profiling Earth science missions on a low-cost, quick-turnaround platform

The ultimate goal of this research, if successful, would be to place a constellation of precipitation profiling instruments in low-Earth orbit to gather larger amounts of data at a faster rate than current instruments—which few in number—are capable of. This improved data could provide better climate and weather models than current satellites.

RainCube is expected to be stored inside of the ISS until its deployment, which is expected later in 2018.

Launch viewing


Because the Antares is launching from the central portion of the Eastern Seaboard, a large swath of the East Coast as far inland as West Virginia should be able to see at least some portion of the ascent, pending local visibility conditions. The closer a viewer is to the liftoff, the better the opportunity, of course.

For those at Wallops, the first light before sunrise on the day of the May 21 launch attempt is expected at around 5:16 a.m. EDT (09:16 GMT). While the liftoff is expected to occur almost 40 minutes before that, once the rocket reaches a high enough altitude where the sun is already shining, the contrail produced by the rising vehicle could be illuminated.

Map of locations and times on the U.S. East Coast for viewing the Antares rocket launch. Credit: Orbital ATK

Map of locations and times on the U.S. East Coast for viewing the Antares rocket launch. Credit: Orbital ATK

 

Video courtesy of NASA

 

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Lloyd Campbell’s first interest in space began when he was a very young boy in the 1960s with NASA’s Gemini and Apollo programs. That passion continued in the early 1970s with our continued exploration of our Moon, and was renewed by the Shuttle Program. Having attended the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery on its final two missions, STS-131, and STS-133, he began to do more social networking on space and that developed into writing more in-depth articles. Since then he’s attended the launch of the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, the agency’s new crew-rated Orion spacecraft on Exploration Flight Test 1, and multiple other uncrewed launches. In addition to writing, Lloyd has also been doing more photography of launches and aviation. He enjoys all aspects of space exploration, both human, and robotic, but his primary passions lie with human exploration and the vehicles, rockets, and other technologies that allow humanity to explore space.

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