Orbital sends C. Gordon Fullerton to ISS on first mission under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services contract
WALLOPS FLIGHT FACILITY, Va — After waiting through record-breaking weather on Earth, and dangerous weather in space, Orbital Sciences Corporation’s (Orbital’s) Antares rocket lifted off today at 1:07 p.m. EST (1807 GMT) bringing its cache of food supplies and experiments to the International Space Station (ISS). Lifting off at the opening of the launch window, its Cygnus payload was placed in a 113 by 170 nautical mile orbit. Over the next several days, Cygnus will perform a series of maneuvers raise its orbit to match that of the ISS, leading to its automated rendezvous on January 12. ISS astronauts Mile Hopkins, assisted by fellow crew member Koichi Wakata will use the station’s arm to capture Cygnus and berth it on the station’s Harmony node.
Leaving from Pad 0A at NASA’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) located at Wallops Island, Virginia, the flight marks Orbitals first operational mission under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission contract.
The Dulles, Virginia – based firm is contracted to conduct a total of eight (seven now) cargo resupply flights to the ISS under NASA’s CRS contract. Today’s mission, which hoisted some 3,230 lbs worth of food, clothing, spare parts and scientific experiments is just the start of the $1.9 billion contract that Orbital has with the space agency. Among these experiments is the first sponsored research payload of the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS).
“Research on this flight consists of a variety of payloads, including an investigation focused on antibiotic research examining physical and gene expression changes in bacteria in space with hopes of creating new and improved drug therapies on Earth. Multiple education payloads also will head to the ISS, such as Ants In Space – which will observe the colonization habits of ants in a microgravity environment and compare their patterns to those on Earth. Additionally, Procter & Gamble is teaming with Zin Technologies to investigate the absence of buoyancy-driven convection, specifically within colloids for the potential production of commercial products,” stated a CASIS release.
“Today’s launch is a signature moment for CASIS and our partner, Orbital Sciences Corporation. The ability to partner with researchers and send their concepts to the ISS under a CASIS manifest is now real,” said CASIS President and Executive Director, Gregory H. Johnson. “I firmly believe that today’s launch is a pivotal moment to enable science in space for life on Earth.”
Weather for today’s launch was much improved from the previous day’s launch opportunities, where bitterly cold temperatures and strong gusty winds violated the launch criteria. Conditions were a pleasant change from earlier in the week with broken clouds, temperatures in the low 30’s and winds in the 5-15 mph range.
Given the clear nature of the skies above Pad 0A and along the Eastern Seaboard, the launch was clearly visible for people along the Atlantic Coast. From as far north as Philadelphia to as far south as North Carolina, Antares arc to orbit added a bright exclamation point to an otherwise frosty day.
After rising vertically for the first few seconds, the Antares rocket began its planned turn to the south east to a heading of 110.2 degrees. Its first stage engines operated at 108 percent of its rated thrust at launch, throttling down shortly afterwards to 104 percent to reduce stresses on the engine and launch vehicle as it passed through what s known as “Max-q” – where the density of the atmosphere coupled with the speed of the rocket cause the greatest amount of stress on the launch vehicle.
“At the time of the 1:07 p.m. EST launch of Cygnus, the space station was flying about 261 miles above Earth, off the coast of Brazil,” said a status update from NASA.
Burning liquid oxygen and RP-1 (a highly refined kerosene), the first stage of the Antares carried the Cygnus spacecraft to an altitude of about 57 nautical miles. Just under four minutes after launch, the first stage with its empty propellant tanks was cut loose, entering a 1 minute, 47 second coast phase. During that time, the Antares stabilized the vehicle and jettisoned the payload faring that protected Cygnus during its ascent. Moments before the second stage ignited, an inter-stage assembly dropped away and ATK’s CASTOR-30B solid fuel motor ignited. Two minutes, eight seconds later, the second stage burned out having inserted Cygnus into orbit.
“This third successful launch validates that the entire Antares/Cygnus team, spanning multiple companies and continents, has once again proven its reliability to transport services and products to the ISS,” said Aerojet Rocketdyne Vice President of Space Launch Systems, Steve Bouley. “This mission highlights the wide range of products we supply to customers, like Orbital, as evidenced here with our large liquid propellant AJ26 engines to the multiple small monopropellant thrusters needed to successfully maneuver and berth Cygnus to the ISS.”
Unlike liquid fuel rockets, the solid fuel of the second stage cannot quickly or immediately shut off at burnout. Engineers on the ground programmed a two minute delay after the second stage to let residual propellant burn itself out. 9 minutes, 54 seconds after launch, Cygnus separated from the second stage and open its solar panels. Engineers on the ground reviewed its health and pronounced the vehicle ready to begin operations.
Several carefully timed firings of the main engine on Cygnus will adjust its altitude and relative position to the space station. Launched into a lower orbit than its target, Cygnus travels faster than the ISS, allowing it to slowly “catch up”. Each of the 5 planned maneuvers will raise the cargo vehicle’s orbit and adjust the phase, or timing window for its next set of engine firings. Final rendezvous operations will begin when Cygnus arrives at a point 1.5 km immediately below the station.
Liftoff was delayed from its original mid-December date by a failed cooling system valve on-board the ISS. Buried deep within a refrigerator sized pump module, astronauts required two spacewalks shortly before Christmas to remove and replace the failed module. Rescheduled to the second week of January, the new launch date faced an outbreak of brutally cold weather accompanied by strong winds. After waiting two days for conditions to improve, the Orbital Science’s team was faced with a completely different version of stormy weather.
A huge sunspot erupted on the surface of the sun, sending a heavy stream of protons and radiation towards the earth. Facing the potential of having the solar outburst damage on-board electronics or corrupt computer operations, Orbital managers decided to wait an additional day for the storm to pass.
The Cygnus spacecraft was developed for NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program. The soda can-shaped spacecraft is capable of carrying more than 4,400 pounds of cargo to the space station. The spacecraft was named the C. Gordon Fullerton in honor of the space shuttle astronaut who aided Orbital during test flight’s of the firm’s Pegasus air-launched rocket.
Today’s launch marks the start of a very busy launch manifest for Orbital. The company has two additional missions, slated for May and October, bound for the ISS. If the company can get all three to successfully journey to the space station, approximately 12,100 pounds of cargo will be delivered.
NASA’s Commercial Cargo Program has made great strides in the past two years, with Space Exploration Technologies having already completed two flights under CRS and Orbital’s first underway. Orbital is aided by an array of subcontractors including Aerojet Rocketdyne which provides the AJ-26 rocket engines in Antares first stage and ATK, which provides the Castor 30B solid-rocket motor in the launch vehicle’s upper stage.
An ATK release stated that: “this motor incorporates modifications from the CASTOR 30, which flew on the first two Antares flights. The 30B is longer, and nominally designed as an upper stage that can function as a second or third stage depending on the vehicle configuration.”
A mission update from Orbital Sciences stated that: “…The roughly ten-minute mission delivered Cygnus to its initial orbit. Over the next two-and-a-half days, Cygnus will use its on-board thrusters to raise its orbit to rendezvous and berth with the space station. Arrival of Cygnus at the station is targeted for the morning of Sunday, January 12.”
“Today’s launch demonstrates how our strategic investments in the American commercial spaceflight industry are helping create new jobs here at home and keep the United States the world leader in space exploration,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. “American astronauts have been living and working continuously in space for the past 13 years on board the International Space Station, and we’re once again sending them supplies launched from U.S. soil. In addition to the supplies, the passion and hard work of many researchers and students are being carried by Cygnus today. I congratulate Orbital and the NASA teams that made this resupply mission possible.”
Check back with The Spaceflight Group for updates regarding Cygnus’ resupply mission to the International Space Station.
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