Private Cygnus Freighter Berths at Space Station with Huge Science Cargo and Ant Colony

by Ken Kremer on January 12, 2014

Want to stay on top of all the space news? Follow @universetoday on Twitter

Orbital Sciences' Cygnus cargo spacecraft, with the moon seen in the background, is moved into installation position by astronauts using a robotic arm aboard the International Space Station Jan. 12. Credit: NASA

Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus cargo spacecraft, with the moon seen in the background, is moved into installation position by astronauts using a robotic arm aboard the International Space Station on Jan. 12, 2014. Credit: NASA

With the Moon as a spectacular backdrop, an Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus cargo spacecraft speeding at 17500 MPH on a landmark flight and loaded with a huge treasure trove of science, belated Christmas presents and colonies of ants rendezvoued at the space station early this Sunday morning (Jan. 12), captured and then deftly parked by astronauts guiding it with the Canadian robotic arm.

Cygnus is a commercially developed resupply freighter stocked with 1.5 tons of vital research experiments, crew provisions and student science projects that serves as an indispensible “lifeline” to keep the massive orbiting outpost alive and humming with the science for which it was designed.

Following a two day orbital chase that started with the spectacular blastoff on Jan. 9 atop Orbital’s private Antares booster from NASA Wallops Flight Facility, Va., Cygnus fired its on board thrusters multiple times to approach in close proximity to the million pound International Space Station (ISS) by 3 a.m. Sunday.

ISS Astronauts grapple Orbital Sciences Cygnus spacecraft with robotic arm and guide it to docking port. Credit: NASA TV

ISS Astronauts grapple Orbital Sciences Cygnus spacecraft with robotic arm and guide it to docking port. Credit: NASA TV

When Cygnus had moved further to within 30 feet (10 meters) NASA Astronaut and station crew member Mike Hopkins – working inside the Cupola – then successfully grappled the ship with the stations 57 foot long Canadarm2 at 6:08 a.m. EST to complete the first phase of today’s operations.

“Capture confirmed,” radioed Hopkins as the complex was flying 258 miles over the Indian Ocean and Madagascar.

“Congratulations to Orbital and the Orbital-1 team and the family of C. Gordon Fullerton,” he added. The ship is named in honor of NASA shuttle astronaut G. Gordon Fullerton who passed away in 2013.

“Capturing a free flyer is one of the most critical operations on the ISS,” explained NASA astronaut and ISS alum Cady Coleman during live NASA TV coverage.

ISS Astronauts grapple Orbital Sciences Cygnus spacecraft with robotic arm and guide it to docking port. Credit: NASA TV

ISS Astronauts grapple Orbital Sciences Cygnus spacecraft with robotic arm and guide it to docking port. Credit: NASA TV

Koichi Wakata of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency then took command of the robotic arm and maneuvered Cygnus to berth it at the Earth-facing (nadir) port on the station’s Harmony Node at 8:05 a.m while soaring over Australia.

16 bolts will be driven home and 4 latches tightly hooked to firmly join the two spacecraft together and insure no leaks.

The Orbital -1 spaceship is conducting the first of 8 operational cargo logistics flights scheduled under Orbital Sciences’ multi-year $1.9 Billion Commercial Resupply Services contract (CRS) with NASA that runs through 2016.

Antares soars to space on Jan. 9, 2014 from NASA Wallops on Virginia coast on the Orb-1 mission to the ISS.  Photo taken by remote camera at launch pad. Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com

Antares soars to space on Jan. 9, 2014 from NASA Wallops on Virginia coast on the Orb-1 mission to the ISS. Photo taken by remote camera at launch pad. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The purpose of the unmanned, private Cygnus spaceship – and the SpaceX Dragon – is to restore America’s cargo to orbit capability that was terminated following the shutdown of NASA’s space shuttles.

Cygnus and Dragon will each deliver 20,000 kg (44,000 pounds) of cargo to the station according to the NASA CRS contracts.

“This cargo operation is the lifeline of the station,” said Coleman.

This Cygnus launched atop Antares on Jan. 9 and docked on Jan. 12   Cygnus pressurized cargo module – side view – during exclusive visit by  Ken Kremer/Universe Today to observe prelaunch processing by Orbital Sciences at NASA Wallops, VA. ISS astronauts will open this hatch to unload 2780 pounds of cargo.  Docking mechanism hooks and latches to ISS at left. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

This Cygnus launched atop Antares on Jan. 9 and docked on Jan. 12
Cygnus pressurized cargo module – side view – during exclusive visit by Ken Kremer/Universe Today to observe prelaunch processing by Orbital Sciences at NASA Wallops, VA. ISS astronauts will open this hatch to unload 2780 pounds of cargo. Docking mechanism hooks and latches to ISS at left. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The six person crew of Expedition 38 serving aboard the ISS is due to open the hatch to Cygnus tomorrow, Monday, and begin unloading the 2,780 pounds (1,261 kilograms) of supplies packed inside.

“Our first mission under the CRS contract with NASA was flawlessly executed by our Antares and Cygnus operations team, from the picture-perfect launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility to the rendezvous, capture and berthing at the space station this morning,” said Mr. David W. Thompson, Orbital’s President and Chief Executive Officer, in a statement from Orbital.

“From the men and women involved in the design, integration and test, to those who launched the Antares and operated the Cygnus, our whole team has performed at a very high level for our NASA customer and I am very proud of their extraordinary efforts.”

Up-close view of Orbital Sciences Cygnus service module outfitted with propulsion, power generating solar arrays and guidance during exclusive visit by  Ken Kremer/Universe Today to observe prelaunch processing by Orbital Sciences at NASA Wallops, VA. Service module gets attached to pressurized cargo module and flies Cygnus vehicle to ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Up-close view of Orbital Sciences Cygnus service module outfitted with propulsion, power generating solar arrays and guidance during exclusive visit by Ken Kremer/Universe Today to observe prelaunch processing by Orbital Sciences at NASA Wallops, VA. Service module gets attached to pressurized cargo module and flies Cygnus vehicle to ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Science experiments weighing 1000 pounds account for nearly 1/3 of the cargo load.

Among those are 23 student designed experiments representing over 8700 K-12 students involving life sciences topics ranging from amoeba reproduction to calcium in the bones to salamanders.

The students are part of the Student SpaceFlight Experiments Program (SSEP) sponsored by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE).

Student Space Flight team  at NASA Wallops from Washington, DC discusses their microencapsulation science experiment selected to fly aboard the Cygnus spacecraft with Ken Kremer/Universe Today.  23 student experiments launched to the ISS from NASA Wallops, VA, on Jan . 9, 2014, as part of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) and have arrived at the station.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com

Student Space Flight team at NASA Wallops from Washington, DC discusses their microencapsulation science experiment selected to fly aboard the Cygnus spacecraft with Ken Kremer/Universe Today. 23 student experiments launched to the ISS from NASA Wallops, VA, on Jan . 9, 2014, as part of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) and have arrived at the station. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Ant colonies from three US states are also aboard, living inside 8 habitats. The “ants in space” experiment will be among the first to be unloaded from Cygnus to insure the critters are well fed for their expedition on how they fare and adapt in zero gravity.

33 cubesats are also aboard that will be deployed from the Japanese Experiment Module airlock.

“One newly arrived investigation will study the decreased effectiveness of antibiotics during spaceflight. Another will examine how different fuel samples burn in microgravity, which could inform future design for spacecraft materials,” said NASA in a statement.

Cygnus is currently scheduled to remain berthed at the ISS for 37 days until February 18.

The crew will reload it with all manner of no longer need trash and then send it off to a fiery and destructive atmospheric reentry so it will burn up high over the Pacific Ocean on Feb. 19.

Cygnus departure is required to make way for the next cargo freighter – the SpaceX Dragon, slated to blast off from Cape Canaveral, Florida on Feb. 22 atop the company’s upgraded Falcon 9.

Watch for my ongoing Antares/Cygnus reports.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Orbital Sciences, SpaceX, commercial space, Chang’e-3, LADEE, Mars and more news.

Ken Kremer

Cygnus berthed at Harmony node on ISS. Credit: NASA TV

Cygnus berthed at Harmony node on ISS. Credit: NASA TV

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

gopher652003 January 12, 2014 at 1:52 PM

Typo: “e SpaceX Dragon, slated to blast off from Cape Canaveral, Florida on Feb. 22 atop the companies upgraded Falcon 9″

“companies” should be “company’s”.

Ken Kremer January 12, 2014 at 2:03 PM

fixed thanks

Aqua4U January 12, 2014 at 2:35 PM

Well done…Will either Orbital or Space X fly the now standard(?) Russian style shortened flight profile to the ISS in future?

Ken Kremer January 12, 2014 at 2:42 PM

maybe – future story

gopher652003 January 12, 2014 at 10:12 PM

I’m interested in that topic too, and I imagine others have been wondering about it as well, so I’m sure that would be a well received article.

Also, thanks for fixing that typo I mentioned below. And please don’t take offense when we point them out. In my case at least I’m just trying to help:). No insult intended.

Everyone needs editing. This way you’re just crowdsourcing it.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: