How to Spot Commercial Cygnus Craft Chasing ISS for Sept. 22 Coupling

by Ken Kremer on September 20, 2013

After launching to orbit atop the Antares rocket on Sept. 18, the first ever Cygnus cargo spacecraft is chasing the ISS and set to dock on Sept 22. Until then you may be able to track it in the night skies. Here is full scale, high fidelity mockup of Cygnus to give a feel for its size being similar to a small room. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

After launching to orbit atop the Antares rocket on Sept. 18, the first ever Cygnus cargo spacecraft is chasing the ISS and set to dock on Sept 22. Until then you have the opportunity to track it in the night skies. This full scale, high fidelity mockup of the Orbital Sciences/Thales Alenia Cygnus gives a feel for it being similar in size to a small room. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Story Updated: Further details and photos – and NASA TV link to Live Docking Coverage

WALLOPS ISLAND, VA – Following Wednesday morning’s (Sept. 18) spectacular blastoff of the Antares rocket with the commercial Cygnus resupply spacecraft, sky watchers now have a very limited window of opportunity to spot the maiden Cygnus chasing down the International Space Station (ISS) in the early morning skies before it arrives for the historic 1st rendezvous and docking on Sunday morning, Sept 22.

So between now and early Sunday you have the chance to gaze skywards and see and photograph history’s first Earth orbiting Cygnus hunting the ISS and gradually close in for the delicate coupling maneuver.

Here’s our guide on ‘How to Spot Cygnus’.

Sighting opportunities are available worldwide from at least North and South America, Europe, Asia and Africa according to NASA’s ‘Spot the Station’ website – here. See more websites listed below.

Update 4 a.m. Sunday Sept 22- Cygnus Rendezvous Delayed 48 Hours due to communications glitch
Update Sept 23: delayed to no earlier than Saturday due to Soyuz launch on Wednesday. Thus more chances to view!

Time is of the essence! So don’t delay to check this out!

Since the successful separation of the first Cygnus – built by Orbital Sciences and Thales Alenia – from Antares, the Earth orbiting vehicle has been successfully firing its hydrazine fueled thrusters to move ever closer to the massive orbiting lab complex – at a rate of 82 statute miles per orbit..

Artist rendering of Cygnus spacecraft approaching the International Space Station

Artist rendering of Cygnus spacecraft approaching the International Space Station

If all of the ten on orbit maneuvering tests proceed satisfactorily, Cygnus will reach the vicinity of the station on Sunday early morning (US East Coast time).

“There are some ‘goodies’ stowed on board for the crew’s enjoyment,” Alan Lindenmoyer, NASA’s program manager for commercial crew and cargo, told Universe Today at NASA Wallops.

ISS astronauts Karen Nyberg (NASA) and Luca Parmitano (ESA) are scheduled to grapple Cygnus with the station’s Canadian built robotic arm between 7:15 and 7:30 a.m. EDT, if all goes well.

Nyberg and Parmitano, working at a robotic work station in the Cupola module, are due to install the cargo carrier at an earth facing docking port on the Harmony pressurized module as early as 9 a.m. EDT, Sept 22.

Antares rocket lifts off at 10:58 a.m. EDT Sept 18 with commercial Cygnus cargo resupply ship bound for the International Space Station (ISS) from Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad-0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.  Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

Antares rocket lifts off at 10:58 a.m. EDT Sept 18 with commercial Cygnus cargo resupply ship bound for the International Space Station (ISS) from Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad-0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

It’s the same docking port already used by the SpaceX Dragon cargo vessel on three successful missions to date since 2012.

Cameras on the second stage captured this amazing image of the Cygnus spacecraft separating from the rocket into orbit.

Cameras on the second stage captured this amazing image of the Cygnus spacecraft separating from the rocket into orbit.

Although Cygnus is much smaller than the ISS, it should still be visible – weather permitting of course.

At 17 feet (5 meters) long and 10 feet (3 meters) wide, Cygnus is the size of a small room.

In fact, while I was at NASA Wallops this week reporting on the Antares launch for Universe Today, I had a chance to visit a full scale, high fidelity mockup of Cygnus built for Orbital Sciences and on display at the local community center in Chincoteague, VA.

The Cygnus display model gives one a great feel for just how big Cygnus really is- see my photos herein.

Front view showing docking mechanism and hatch of Cygnus module in this full scale, high fidelity mockup of the Orbital Sciences/Thales Alenia spacecraft gives a feel for it being similar in size to a small room.  Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

Front view showing docking mechanism and hatch of Cygnus module in this full scale, high fidelity mockup of the Orbital Sciences/Thales Alenia spacecraft gives a feel for it being similar in size to a small room. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

A full size human mannequin standing inside showed that a human can fit comfortably inside.

Thales Alenia Space in Italy designed and constructed the 17 foot ( 5 meter) long Cygnus pressurized module under contract with Orbital.

“Thales Alenia has actually built 50% of the pressurized modules currently comprising the ISS,” said Luigi Quaglino, Thales Alenia Senior Vice President.

“We have built 25 pressurized space modules and learned a lot along the way,” Quaglino told Universe Today at NASA Wallops.

The ISS is the largest manmade object in orbit. It’s the size of a football field and the brightest object in the night sky after the Moon thanks also to the huge, reflecting solar arrays.

Cygnus will be significantly dimmer, but nevertheless should be readily visible.

Look for a ‘star’ moving gradually against the backdrop of stars trailing behind the ISS that likewise appears as a bright moving ‘star’.

ISS streaks over Princeton, NJ - time lapse image.  Credit: Ken Kremer

ISS streaks over Princeton, NJ – time lapse image. Credit: Ken Kremer

As Sunday approaches, the gap between the ISS and Cygnus narrows.

On Thursday Cygnus was trailing about 10 minutes behind the ISS. Whereas on Friday and Saturday, the gap narrows down to roughly 4 minutes and then just 1 minute.

You can also try and photograph the ISS and Cygnus trails by mounting your camera on a tripod and leaving the shutter open at least several seconds and longer. Send me any cool time lapse photos to post here at Universe Today.

Many folks have never seen an ISS flyover and this is a fantastic time to start as the dynamic duo speed merrily across the nighttime sky.

To determine if there are any favorable sighting opportunities in your area, check out NASA’s Spot the Station website – here.

Check the NASA website for a detailed listing of the precise times, elevations, direction and durations. It’s an easy to use viewing guide. Just plug in the particulars of the country in which you live.

Another great source is Heaven’s Above – here

Also check Spaceweather.com – here

And Orbital Sciences reports that “AGI has developed a slick interactive 2D/3D simulation that allows you to track the location of Cygnus in real-time.”

Details here and here

I have personally watched the SpaceX Dragon, European ATV and Japanese HTV cargo carriers streaking through the night sky, trailing a few minutes behind the ISS. And it’s always a thrill.

The cargo vessel will deliver about 1,300 pounds (589 kilograms) of cargo, including food, clothing, water, science experiments, spare parts and gear to the Expedition 37 crew.

Cygnus will remain attached to the ISS for about a month. The astronauts will unload the supplies including few goodies starting on Monday. They they’ll pack it with trash. After undocking Cygnus will come to a flaming finale by burning up upon reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

So there should be a final opportunity to view it circling Earth.

NASA Television coverage of the arrival and capture of Cygnus will begin at 4:30 a.m. EDT

Streaming video will be available on NASA’s website at http://www.nasa.gov/ntv

Saturday evening Update:

NASA has given the GO for Sunday morning Docking !

Happy Viewing and Clear Skies

Ken Kremer

…………….

Learn more about Cygnus, Antares, LADEE, Curiosity, Mars rovers, MAVEN, Orion and more at Ken’s upcoming presentations

Oct 3: “Curiosity, MAVEN and the Search for Life on Mars – (3-D)”, STAR Astronomy Club, Brookdale Community College & Monmouth Museum, Lincroft, NJ, 8 PM

Oct 8: NASA’s Historic LADEE Lunar & Antares/Cygnus ISS Rocket Launches from Virginia”; Princeton University, Amateur Astronomers Assoc of Princeton (AAAP), Princeton, NJ, 8 PM

1st operational Cygnus pressurized cargo module from Orbital Sciences Corp. & Thales Alenia Space sits inside high bay clean room facility at NASA Wallops Flight Facility, VA for preflight processing. This Cygnus spacecraft arrived from Italy and may launch to the ISS as early as December 2013 from Wallops launch pad 0A. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

1st operational Cygnus pressurized cargo module from Orbital Sciences Corp. & Thales Alenia Space sits inside high bay clean room facility at NASA Wallops Flight Facility, VA for preflight processing. This Cygnus spacecraft arrived from Italy and may launch to the ISS as early as December 2013 from Wallops launch pad 0A. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

Ken Kremer (Universe Today)and Antares rocket at NASAWallops Launch Complex 0A. Credit: Ken Kremer

Ken Kremer (Universe Today) and Antares rocket at NASA Wallops Launch Complex 0A. Credit: Ken Kremer

About 

Dr. Ken Kremer is a speaker, scientist, freelance science journalist (Princeton, NJ) and photographer whose articles, space exploration images and Mars mosaics have appeared in magazines, books, websites and calanders including Astronomy Picture of the Day, NBC, BBC, SPACE.com, Spaceflight Now and the covers of Aviation Week & Space Technology, Spaceflight and the Explorers Club magazines. Ken has presented at numerous educational institutions, civic & religious organizations, museums and astronomy clubs. Ken has reported first hand from the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral and NASA Wallops on over 40 launches including 8 shuttle launches. He lectures on both Human and Robotic spaceflight - www.kenkremer.com. Follow Ken on Facebook and Twitter

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