Spaceflight Insider

OA-6 mission set to conduct array of science and technology demonstrations

5495-orbital_atk_atlas_v_oa6-carleton_bailie SpaceFlight Insider

The OA-6 mission is scheduled to launch on March 22, 2016. Photo Credit: Carleton Bailie / SpaceFlight Insider

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — When the S.S. Rick Husband Cygnus spacecraft launches next week, it will not only deliver an estimated 7,756 lbs (3,518 kg) of cargo, crew supplies, and experiments to the International Space Station. The OA-6 mission will also see the Cygnus spacecraft be used to conduct a scientific experiment of its own.

Perhaps one of the more unusual experiments that will be carried out on (or after as the case may be) as part of OA-6 is Saffire. The Spacecraft Fire Experiment-I or “Saffire“, as it is more commonly known, will see a large-scale fire set inside the empty Cygnus cargo freighter after it has completed its stay at the ISS. Instruments, including two cameras, will monitor the progression of the fire as it consumes a piece of material.

As Cygnus is automated, there is no risk to the crew. This experiment is being fielded to provide a better understanding of large fires in the microgravity environment. It will monitor the flame’s growth, oxygen use, and other aspects of how fires behave in zero gravity. Cygnus is designed to burn up as it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere, some eight days after its 55-day stay at the orbiting lab is complete.

“The burn itself, our whole sequence, will only take about two hours or so to complete. The burn itself may be as short as 15 to 20 minutes,” Gary Ruff, Saffire’s co-investigator, told SpaceFlight Insider. “So those two cameras are looking at one side of our sample material and we also have some radiometers that are looking at both sides of it; those are looking at the flame radiation – essentially, the heat given off.”

Five relays, controlled by Orbital ATK out of the aerospace firm’s headquarters located in Dulles, Virginia, will ensure that an accidental triggering of the experiment does not occur.

“One of the big questions in fire safety, whether it’s terrestrial or in space, is how rapidly are conditions in a room or in a spacecraft going to [be] bad for the inhabitants […] whether you’re talking about a house fire or in a spacecraft,” Ruff said. “Based on that answer, what we can do is to make sure that we provide the right types of fire detection, fire suppression, cleanup equipment and, really, fire protection for the crew while they’re responding to a fire so that we can provide the right capabilities to the crew.”

Video courtesy of NASA Glenn Research Center

Also flying on OA-6 is Strata-1, an experiment looking into the behavior of regolith (soil, gravel, and other rocky materials) on small bodies that lack an appreciable atmosphere. As NASA is currently planning on sending crews to a boulder plucked from an asteroid and towed into lunar orbit, this experiment could provide useful insights that could assist this and other future missions to these tiny worlds. The U.S. space agency has repeatedly stated that it is working to send astronauts to the surface of Mars sometime in the 2030s.

Strata-1 should provide scientists and engineers with a better understanding as to how spacecraft can attach themselves to destinations such as an asteroid or the Moon.

“Strata-1 will study the fundamental properties of regolith on small bodies. Regolith is impact-fractured, loose material on the surface of airless bodies without an atmosphere, like Mercury, the Moon, asteroids, comets,” said Strata-1’s Principal Investigator Mark Fries. “The behavior of regolith on larger bodies, like the Moon, is fairly well-known from our studies of returned lunar materials. But, we don’t have as good a handle on the behavior of this material on small bodies.”

Small bodies, such as comets and asteroids, are within the microgravity realm – which opens up the field of study to the International Space Station.

“The Strata-1 consists of, how it actually works is, it has four tubes that are under vacuum and they are filled with four different regolith simulants. Those simulants range from very, very simple material, where the material is just three different sizes of glass beads, to a more complicated material which more closely resembles actual regolith,” Fries said. “One tube is filled with crushed meteorite […] and it varies from this very simple model, which is just glass spheres, all the same composition but in three different sizes, to crushed meteorite.”

The Strata-1 experiment could also provide methods as to how to move and process large volumes of regolith. These efforts are thought to be beneficial when the day comes when astronauts stride across the red plains of Mars. It is hoped Strata-1 will add to the understanding of these phenomena. NASA is planning on launching the OSIRIS-REx mission later this year with the agency’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) poised to get underway in the mid-2020s.

On the more astronomical side of things, Meteor Composition Determination or “Meteor” is being sent to the ISS to review the chemical composition of meteors making their plunge into Earth’s dense atmosphere. Meteor will capture high-resolution images of these rare events via a “hacked” program that will study Earth’s atmosphere by seeking out bright spots in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Technology demonstration missions will also be a part of OA-6. Gecko Grippers will seek to test out something many of us have seen here on Earth – the amazing gripping power of geckos’ feet. Tiny hairs on these reptiles’ feet, called setae, grant the insectivores with incredible gripping power.

While it might not seem like much, this technology could revolutionize technologies critical to space exploration, such as robotics.

“The ‘stickiness’ can be turned on or off, so, it’s actually the case that the material is not sticky to the touch. So it feels more like a rubber band – not like a tape or glue,” said Gecko Grippers Principal Investigator Aaron Parness. “You have to apply a load in a special direction to turn the adhesion on.”

Video courtesy of NASA JPL

Made in Space, which has already flown a 3-D printer to the space station, is looking to expand upon its orbital experience by fielding the Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF). Installed into an Express Rack locker on the orbiting lab, the AMF is capable of producing a wide range of items and parts – including those composed of engineered plastics.

“[…] and it [the AMF] will be a permanent 3-D printer on the International Space Station,” said Made in Space’s Vice President of In-Space operations Matt Napoli. “Back in 2004, we partnered with Marshall Space Flight Center to build and operate the first 3-D printing in [a] zero-g experiment […] this new facility is now a production 3-D printing facility. The difference there being less on the research side and more of a facility that we can now support other programs and other users.”

The AMF is being eyed as a means to produce parts, tools, and potentially even entire experiments on orbit. Whereas in the past new experiments would require an individual launch, AMF could allow for the specifications of certain experiments to be transmitted up to the station’s computers.

Video courtesy of NASA Johnson Space Center

These experiments got their start at many of NASA’s centers: Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas; the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California; Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.

Orbital ATK’s S.S. Rick Husband is set to lift off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 in Florida on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 rocket. The launch window is scheduled to open at 10:52 p.m. EDT (02:52 GMT) on March 22, 2016, and it will extend for some 30 minutes.

The ISS is presently, or will soon be, involved with more than 250 scientific experiments. The first segments of the outpost were sent into orbit about 260 miles above our world in 1998.

Orbital ATK was selected under both the first and second phases of NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services initiative. Through this arrangement, the Dulles, Virginia-based company has fielded the 100 variant of its Antares booster as well as the normal and enhanced versions of its Cygnus cargo freighter. If everything goes as planned, the new Antares 200 variant should take to the skies in late May.



Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

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