Spaceflight Insider

OA-7 Cygnus set to bring science and supplies to ISS

Cygnus OA-7

Cygnus OA-7 / S.S. John Glenn. Photo Credit: Michael Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Orbital ATK’s OA-7 Cygnus spacecraft, named S.S. John Glenn in honor of America’s first orbital astronaut, is set to launch over 7,500 pounds of supplies and equipment to the International Space Station (ISS).

The OA-7 mission is set to launch atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket at 11:11 a.m. EDT (15:11 GMT) April 18, 2017, from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

ULA has a 30-minute window to get the rocket off the ground. This flexibility will allow the team some time to troubleshoot any technical problems that might crop up during the countdown or wait out any inclement weather situations. However, weather conditions for launch are expected to be very favorable. The 45th Weather Squadron is predicting only a 10 percent chance of violating flight rules. The primary concern that day is cumulus clouds.

United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 rocket with Orbital ATK OA-7 Cygnus being berthed to the International Space Station image courtesy of ULA

Image Credit: United Launch Alliance

The mission has been delayed multiple times over the last month. Between troubleshooting a hydraulic issue with ground support equipment and then another issue with a booster hydraulic line, the launch slipped from March 24 to March 27, and finally to no earlier than mid-April.

This is the third time Cygnus is flying aboard ULA’s Atlas V, which usually fly aboard Orbital ATK’s own Antares launch vehicle. NASA wanted the company to use the more powerful booster in order to send more cargo to the orbiting outpost.

What’s onboard?

The mission will be Orbital ATK’s seventh cargo run to the ISS as part of the company’s $1.9 billion Commercial Resupply Services contract with NASA.

“Right now [Cygnus] is filled with about 7,500 pounds of cargo that will be launched and delivered to the International Space Station,” Frank DeMauro, Vice President and General Manager of the Advanced Programs Division at Orbital ATK, told SpaceFlight Insider. “Among that cargo, we’ll have supplies for the crew, we’ll have [the] hardware for the space station, and then we’ll have scientific experiments for the crew to perform.”

Among the scientific investigations Cygnus will carry on this flight is SAFFIRE-III – a space combustion experiment from NASA’s Glenn Research Center.

“That is loaded as a piece of cargo,” DeMauro said. “It stays on the cargo module on the spacecraft after all the other cargo is removed. Once all the disposal cargo is added, they’ll pack around that.”

The experiment will intentionally burn a single large sample of material within the spacecraft’s interior to study flame development in space. DeMauro said that the experiment will be remotely activated once the spacecraft has left the vicinity of the space station. The data gathered will be sent back down to Earth for scientists to study.

All three of the SAFFIRE experiments have been flown and conducted aboard Cygnus.

When it is launched, OA-7 will also carry the Re-entry Data Collection (RED-Data-2) experiment, which studies a new type of recording device that rides along a vehicle re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. It will provide data about the extreme conditions a spacecraft encounters during atmospheric re-entry.

Non-functioning satellites, spent rocket stages, and other debris frequently re-enters Earth’s atmosphere where most of it breaks up and disintegrates before hitting the ground. However, some larger objects can survive atmospheric re-entry. NASA and spacecraft operators seek to improve their ability to predict how an object will break apart in order to protect people and property on Earth.

On the medical side of the science that the spacecraft will bring to space, OA-7 will be carrying an experiment that is meant to study the effectiveness of Azonafide Antibody-Drug Conjugates (ADCs) on cancer cells in microgravity.

In microgravity, cancer cells grow in three dimensions, creating spheroid structures that closely resemble their form in the human body and allowing scientists to better test the efficacy of a drug.

The Efficacy and Metabolism of ADCs in Microgravity investigation tests new antibody drug conjugates, developed by Oncolinx. This investigation could help inform drug design for cancer patients as well as provide more insight into how microgravity affects a drug’s performance.

The Magnetic 3-D Cell Culture for Biological Research in Microgravity (Magnetic 3-D Cell Culturing) investigation will test magnetized cells and tools that may make it easier to handle cells and cell cultures.

As noted above, cells cultured in microgravity spontaneously grow in three dimensions resulting in characteristics more representative of how cells grow and function in living organisms.

Saffire on Cygnus. Photo Credit: NASA

SAFFIRE I on the OA-6 Cygnus spacecraft. SAFFIRE III uses the same experiment container design but will test different materials than on the previous two missions. Photo Credit: NASA

Investigating cells in microgravity is useful because cells cultured on Earth grow in two dimensions (on a petri dish/slide). As a result, this could help investigators improving the ability to reproduce similar investigations and may help isolate the effects of gravity in experiments on Earth.

If investigators can identify these effects on the cell’s growth, data will be used to help design environments on Earth which mimic microgravity, which could reduce the cost of drug development.

The Solidification Using a Baffle in Sealed Ampoules (SUBSA) investigation, which was first tested aboard the ISS in 2002, is designed to advance understanding of the processes involved in semiconductor crystal growth.

The experiment has been updated with modernized software, data acquisition, high definition video, and communication interfaces. The SUBSA Furnace and Inserts will conduct multiple crystal growth investigations, such as CLYC Crystal Growth and Detached Melt and Vapor Growth of InI. The investigation team will observe samples using high-definition video in real time and will control crystal temperatures remotely from Earth.

OA-7 also will launch a 3U CubeSat called IceCube, which will measure cloud ice using an 883-Gigahertz radiometer to improve and predict weather and climate models.

IceCube will collect the first global map of cloud-induced radiances. The key objective of this investigation is to raise the technology readiness level of the radiometer and its use in climate studies.

Lastly, OA-7 will bring up the Advanced Plant Habitat (APH), a fully enclosed, environmentally controlled plant habitat used to conduct plant bioscience research.

This 18 × 18 × 18-inch (45 × 45 × 45-centimeter) enclosure contains a seed bed filled with thick sand-quality clay chips for soil, fertilizer, and pumped-in water. It is covered by a plastic top to keep the surface from floating around.

APH is scheduled to be launched in two parts. The first is launching on OA-7, while the other will reach the ISS aboard SpaceX’s CRS-11 or CRS-12 Dragon spacecraft later this year.

OA-7 Cygnus

The Cygnus spacecraft consists of two modules: the Service Module (SM) which incorporates the avionics, propulsion, and power systems from Orbital ATK’s LEOStar and GEOStar spacecraft buses; and the Pressurized Cargo Module (PCM) which carries the crew supplies, spares, and scientific experiments.

The SM is integrated and tested at Orbital ATK’s Dulles, Virginia satellite manufacturing facility. The PCM is supplied by Thales Alenia Space and is produced in Turin Italy; it arrived at Kennedy Space Center for integration in January.

Each Cygnus is named after an astronaut. This one was named after the first American to orbit Earth, John Glenn.

“After senator Glenn passed away [in December 2016], we immediately began the process of considering naming it after him,” DeMauro said. “It’s very special for his family and so many of us at Orbital ATK.”

Like the SpaceX Dragon vehicle, Cygnus is berthed to the ISS using the Station’s robotic arm rather than docking directly under its own power. After about four days coasting toward the outpost, S.S. John Glenn will rendezvous with the 400-ton complex and the waiting six-person crew of Expedition 51.

“We’re supplying people who are risking their lives in low-Earth orbit to study and perform scientific experiments for the betterment of mankind,” DeMauro said. “This is an extremely noble thing they’re doing. We feel special being part of it.”

Video courtesy of Orbital ATK




Bart Leahy is a freelance technical writer living in Orlando, Florida. Leahy's diverse career has included work for The Walt Disney Company, NASA, the Department of Defense, Nissan, a number of commercial space companies, small businesses, nonprofits, as well as the Science Cheerleaders.

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