“…We shall return!” S.S. Gene Cernan lifts off from MARS’ Pad 0A
WALLOPS FLIGHT FACILITY, Va. — With no wayward pilots to ruin their efforts, NASA and Orbital ATK sent the S.S. Gene Cernan (Cygnus CRS OA-8E) to orbit atop an Antares 230 rocket from Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at 7:19 a.m. EST (12:19 GMT) on Sunday, November 12, 2017, on the OA-8 mission bound for the International Space Station (ISS).
The mission was flown to ferry some 7,385 pounds (3,350 kg) of experiments (from NASA, students, and others) and cargo (including water, crew supplies, and more) up to the orbiting lab.
OA-8 marks the first time that Cygnus is slated to be used as an extension of the ISS as part of the SpaceTango facility TangoLab.
Incompetence can ruin everyone’s day
Orbital ATK had been set to launch on November 11 when a general aircraft had, by all reports, intentionally wandered into the exclusion zone and forced a scrub of the multi-million dollar flight. Unfortunately, the inability to follow basic guidelines and rules threatened this morning’s flight as well.
The countdown was proceeding smoothly up until 7:00 a.m. EST when it was noticed that at least two boats and one aircraft had entered the hazardous exclusion zone.
The boats were steered away from the hazard area and the Orbital ATK launch control team gave their go for launch at 7:09 a.m. EST with the count coming out of the final planned hold in the countdown sequence at 7:09:51 a.m. EST.
While Saturday afforded virtually clear skies, Sunday’s weather, while still at 95 percent favorable for launch, had cirrus and other clouds overhead limiting viewing of the launch throughout its first stage of the flight with the vehicle disappearing into the clouds about 90 seconds after it had lifted off from Pad 0A.
The rocket that was launched this morning was assembled in the nearby Horizontal Integration Facility (or “HIF” as it is more commonly called), which is currently the home of the Antares 230 tapped to fly the OA-9 mission. The Antares 230 employs two NPO Energomash RD-181 engines which burn a mixture of RP-1 (a highly refined version of kerosene) as well as liquid oxygen.
SpaceFlight Insider was part of a group allowed into the HIF to see what will be the OA-9’s Antares, and it was made clear that Orbital ATK was busy preparing both the rockets and the spacecraft that will be used to complete the requirements that the Dulles, Virginia-based company has entered into with NASA under the $1.9 billion Commercial Resupply Services agreement.
“While the Antares team celebrates a successful launch today, we’re already well into building the vehicles for the next two missions,” said Scott Lehr, President of Orbital ATK’s Flight Systems Group via a press release issued by the company. “We will be ready to launch again whenever Cygnus needs us.”
Each of the RD-181 engines has an independent thrust vectoring capability and they operated nominally despite the chilly temperature of some 37 degrees Fahrenheit (2.8 degrees Celsius) that the mission encountered at liftoff.
After leaving Pad 0A, Antares propelled the S.S. Gene Cernan on a trajectory designed to, essentially, catch up with the ISS which was orbiting above at a speed of some 17,500 mph (28,163 km/h) some 251 statute miles (404 km) above the Earth.
The launch had been slated to occur at 7:14:52 a.m. EST. However, because Orbital ATK needed more time for an engine pre-burner to chill, the launch was pushed back to the close of the five-minute window at 7:19 a.m. EST.
At T-minus 0, the rocket’s twin engines activated with the Antares 230 tearing off from Pad-0A 3.7 seconds later. Roughly three-and-a-half minutes (215 seconds) into the flight, Main Engine Cut-Off (MECO) occurred at an altitude of about 62 miles (99 kilometers) with the first stage’s RD-181 engines depleting their supply of RP-1 and liquid oxygen.
With the vehicle still climbing away from the Earth, the Antares’ first stage separated just 6 seconds later at an altitude of some 65 miles (105 km) – almost 4 miles (6 km) higher than when MECO occurred – and fell back to Earth far below.
Then, at an altitude of some 79 miles (127 km) with a mission-elapsed time of approximately 251 seconds, the rocket’s payload fairing, having successfully shielded the S.S. Gene Cernan through Earth’s atmosphere, was discarded and it too fell away with the rocket’s interstage separating just five seconds later.
Still coasting, the vehicle reached an altitude of some 83.2 miles (134 km) when the CASTOR 30XL solid rocket second stage ignited at 264 seconds into the flight.
The second stage burned for 162 seconds and pushed the S.S. Gene Cernan to an orbital altitude of nearly 122 miles (196 km).
Cygnus separated from the expended second stage at 546 seconds into the flight where the Orbital ATK spacecraft team in Dulles, Virginia took control of the spacecraft, separating it from the CASTOR 30XL second stage.
Cygnus’ UltraFlex solar arrays were deployed at approximately 8:48 a.m. EST (13:48 GMT).
Following a two-day flight where the Cygnus spacecraft will use its maneuvering thrusters to move it into the same orbital plane as the space station, it will reach the space station on Tuesday, November 14, at approximately 4:50 a.m. EST (09:50 GMT). Then, Expedition 53 crew members Paolo Nespoli of the European Space Agency (ESA) and Randy Bresnik of NASA will grapple the spacecraft and berth it to the Earth-facing port of the Unity Module.
After docking with the ISS, the Cygnus capsule will be unloaded and then utilized as an extension of the orbiting laboratory for the first time, which will be for an experiment employing the Space-Tango facility named TangoLab-1 – a reconfigurable general research facility designed for microgravity research and development.
The Cygnus module will remain berthed at the ISS until December 4 when, after the crew have removed the lab, the spacecraft will undock from the space station. A NanoRacks deployer aboard the module will then release 14 CubeSats prior to the capsule’s destructive re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, incinerating several tons of trash on board over the Pacific Ocean.
As was the case with the day prior, the biggest risk to Antares’ flight was the public. On November 11, it was an aircraft, but today’s risk came from two boats which members of the launch team, at one point, referred to as “fast movers”. The watercraft had entered into the exclusion zone – causing fears that today’s attempt would be scrubbed for similar reasons.
With the exclusion zone both in the air and on the Atlantic cleared, the mission got underway and each milestone was checked off in succession.
“Today’s successful launch of the OA-8 Cygnus on our Antares launch vehicle once again demonstrates the reliability of Orbital ATK’s hardware along with our commitment to deliver critical cargo to astronauts on the International Space Station,” said Frank Culbertson, President of Orbital ATK’s Space Systems Group. “Soon, Cygnus will rendezvous with the space station to deliver valuable scientific experiments, hardware and crew supplies to the orbiting platform. On this mission, Cygnus will again display its flexibility as an in-orbit science platform by supporting experiments to be performed inside the cargo module while attached to the space station. We are proud to dedicate this mission to Apollo astronaut Gene Cernan and his family and look forward to celebrating the OA-8 contributions to science in his name.”
Cernan flew into space three times – on Gemini 9a, Apollo 10, and Apollo 17. It was on this last mission that he joined an elite fraternity – those who had walked on the surface of the Moon in the 20th century – as the commander of Apollo 17, where he became the last man to walk on the Moon. Cernan passed away on January 16, 2017, in Houston, Texas, at the age of 82.
Video courtesy of SpaceFlight Insider
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, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.