NASA Inaugurates New Space Station Era as Earth Science Observation Platform with RapidScat Instrument

NASA inaugurated a new era of research for the International Space Station (ISS) as an Earth observation platform following the successful installation and activation of the ISS-RapidScat science instrument on the outposts exterior at Europe’s Columbus module.

The ISS Rapid Scatterometer, or ISS-RapidScat, is NASA’s first research payload aimed at conducting near global Earth science from the station’s exterior and will be augmented with others in coming years.

RapidScat is designed to monitor ocean winds for climate research, weather predictions, and hurricane monitoring.

The 1280 pound (580 kilogram) experimental instrument is already collecting its first science data following its recent power-on and activation at the station.

“Its antenna began spinning and it started transmitting and receiving its first winds data on Oct.1,” according to a NASA statement.

The first image from RapidScat was released by NASA on Oct. 6, shown below, and depicts preliminary measurements of global ocean near-surface wind speeds and directions.

Launched Sept. 21, 2014, to the International Space Station, NASA's newest Earth-observing mission, the International Space Station-RapidScat scatterometer to measure global ocean near-surface wind speeds and directions, has returned its first preliminary images.  Credit: NASA-JPL/Caltech
Launched Sept. 21, 2014, to the International Space Station, NASA’s newest Earth-observing mission, the International Space Station-RapidScat scatterometer to measure global ocean near-surface wind speeds and directions, has returned its first preliminary images. Credit: NASA-JPL/Caltech

The $26 million remote sensing instrument uses radar pulses to observe the speed and direction of winds over the ocean for the improvement of weather forecasting.

“Most satellite missions require weeks or even months to produce data of the quality that we seem to be getting from the first few days of RapidScat,” said RapidScat Project Scientist Ernesto Rodriguez of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, which built and manages the mission.

“We have been very lucky that within the first days of operations we have already been able to observe a developing tropical cyclone.

“The quality of these data reflect the level of testing and preparation that the team has put in prior to launch,” Rodriguez said in a NASA statement. “It also reflects the quality of the spare QuikScat hardware from which RapidScat was partially assembled.”

RapidScat, payload was hauled up to the station as part of the science cargo launched aboard the commercial SpaceX Dragon CRS-4 cargo resupply mission that thundered to space on the company’s Falcon 9 rocket from Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Sept. 21.

Dragon was successfully berthed at the Earth-facing port on the station’s Harmony module on Sept 23, as detailed here.

It was robotically assembled and attached to the exterior of the station’s Columbus module using the station’s robotic arm and DEXTRE manipulator over a two day period on Sept 29 and 30.

Ground controllers at Johnson Space Center intricately maneuvered DEXTRE to pluck RapidScat and its nadir adapter from the unpressurized trunk section of the Dragon cargo ship and attached it to a vacant external mounting platform on the Columbus module holding mechanical and electrical connections.

Fascinating: #Canadarm & Dextre installed the #RapidScat Experiment on Columbus! @ISS_Research @NASAJPL @csa_asc. Credit: ESA/NASA/Alexander Gerst
Fascinating: #Canadarm & Dextre installed the #RapidScat Experiment on Columbus! @ISS_Research @NASAJPL @csa_asc. Credit: ESA/NASA/Alexander Gerst

The nadir adapter orients the instrument to point at Earth.

The couch sized instrument and adapter together measure about 49 x 46 x 83 inches (124 x 117 x 211 centimeters).

Engineers are in the midst of a two week check out process that is proceeding normally so far. Another two weeks of calibration work will follow.

Thereafter RapidScat will begin a mission expected to last at least two years, said Steve Volz, associate director for flight programs in the Earth Science Division, NASA Headquarters, Washington, at a prelaunch media briefing at the Kennedy Space Center.

RapidScat is the forerunner of at least five more Earth science observing instruments that will be added to the station by the end of the decade, Volz explained.

The second Earth science instrument, dubbed CATS, could be added by year’s end.

The Cloud-Aerosol Transport System (CATS) is a laser instrument that will measure clouds and the location and distribution of pollution, dust, smoke, and other particulates in the atmosphere.

CATS is slated to launch on the next SpaceX resupply mission, CRS-5, currently targeted to launch from Cape Canaveral, FL, on Dec. 9.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon cargo capsule packed with science experiments and station supplies blasts off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, at 1:52 a.m. EDT on Sept. 21, 2014 bound for the ISS.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon cargo capsule packed with science experiments and station supplies blasts off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, at 1:52 a.m. EDT on Sept. 21, 2014, bound for the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

This has been a banner year for NASA’s Earth science missions. At least five missions will be launched to space within a 12 month period, the most new Earth-observing mission launches in one year in more than a decade.

ISS-RapidScat is the third of five NASA Earth science missions scheduled to launch over a year.

NASA has already launched the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Core Observatory, a joint mission with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency in February, and the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) carbon observatory in July 2014.

NASA managers show installed location of ISS-RapidScat instrument on the Columbus module on an ISS scale model at the Kennedy Space Center press site during launch period for the SpaceX CRS-4 Dragon cargo mission.  Posing are Steve Volz, associate director for flight programs in the Earth Science Division, NASA Headquarters, Washington and Howard Eisen, RapidScat Project Manager.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA managers show installed location of ISS-RapidScat instrument on the ESA Columbus module on an ISS scale model at the Kennedy Space Center press site during launch period for the SpaceX CRS-4 Dragon cargo mission. Posing are Steve Volz, associate director for flight programs in the Earth Science Division, NASA Headquarters, Washington, and Howard Eisen, RapidScat Project Manager. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

…………….

Learn more about Commercial Space Taxis, Orion and NASA Human and Robotic Spaceflight at Ken’s upcoming presentations:

Oct 14: “What’s the Future of America’s Human Spaceflight Program with Orion and Commercial Astronaut Taxis” & “Antares/Cygnus ISS Rocket Launches from Virginia”; Princeton University, Amateur Astronomers Assoc of Princeton (AAAP), Princeton, NJ, 7:30 PM

Oct 23/24: “Antares/Cygnus ISS Rocket Launch from Virginia”; Rodeway Inn, Chincoteague, VA

Cygnus Commercial Resupply Ship ‘Janice Voss’ Berths to Space Station on 45th Apollo 11 Anniversary

Following a nearly three day journey, an Orbital Sciences Corp. Cygnus commercial cargo freighter carrying a ton and a half of science experiments and supplies for the six person crew was successfully installed onto the International Space Station at 8:53 a.m. EDT this morning, July 16, after a flawless arrival and being firmly grasped by station astronauts deftly maneuvering the Canadarm2 robotic arm some two hours earlier.

Cygnus was captured in open space at 6:36 a.m. EDT by Commander Steve Swanson as he maneuvered the 57-foot (17-meter) Canadarm2 from a robotics workstation inside the station’s seven windowed domed Cupola, after it was delicately flown on an approach vector using GPS and LIDAR lasers to within about 32 feet (10 meters) of the massive orbiting complex.

Swanson was assisted by ESA astronaut and fellow Expedition 40 crew member Alexander Gerst working at a hardware control panel.

“Grapple confirmed” radioed Houston Mission Control as the complex soared in low orbit above Earth at 17500 MPH.

“Cygnus is captured as the ISS flew 260 miles (400 km) over northern Libya.”

Orbital Sciences' Cygnus cargo craft approaches the ISS on July 16, 2014 prior to Canadarm2  grappling and berthing.  Credit: NASA TV
Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus cargo craft approaches the ISS on July 16, 2014 prior to Canadarm2 grappling and berthing. Credit: NASA TV

Cygnus by the book arrival at the million pound orbiting laboratory coincided with the 45th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11 on July 16, 1969 on America’s first manned moon landing mission.

This mission dubbed Orbital-2, or Orb-2, marks the second of eight operational cargo resupply missions to the ISS under Orbital’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA.

The supplies are critical to keep the station flying and humming with research investigations.

Up-close side view of payload fairing protecting Cygnus cargo module during launch for Orb-2 mission to ISS. Vehicle undergoes prelaunch processing at NASA Wallops during visit by Universe Today/Ken Kremer.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Up-close side view of payload fairing protecting Cygnus cargo module during launch for Orb-2 mission to ISS. Vehicle undergoes prelaunch processing at NASA Wallops during visit by Universe Today/Ken Kremer. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The supply ship thrusters all worked perfectly normal during rendezvous and docking to station with streaming gorgeous views provided by the stations new high definition HDEV cameras.

“We now have a seventh crew member. Janice Voss is now part of Expedition 40,” radioed Swanson.

“Janice devoted her life to space and accomplished many wonderful things at NASA and Orbital Sciences, including five shuttle missions. And today, Janice’s legacy in space continues. Welcome aboard the ISS, Janice.”

The Cygnus spacecraft was christened “SS Janice Voss” in honor of Janice Voss who flew five shuttle missions during her prolific astronaut carrier, worked for both NASA and Orbital Sciences and passed away in February 2012.

Orbital Sciences' Cygnus cargo craft approaches the ISS on July 16, 2014 prior to Canadarm2  grappling and berthing.  Credit: NASA TV
Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus cargo craft approaches the ISS on July 16, 2014 prior to Canadarm2 grappling and berthing. Credit: NASA TV

A robotics officer at Mission Control in Houston then remotely commanded the arm to move Cygnus into place for its berthing at the Earth-facing port on the Harmony module.

Once Cygnus was in place at the ready to latch (RTF) position, NASA astronaut and Flight Engineer Reid Wiseman monitored the Common Berthing Mechanism operations and initiated the first and second stage capture of the cargo ship to insure the craft was firmly joined.

The hard mate was completed at 8:53 a.m. EDT as the complex was flying about 260 miles over the east coast of Australia. 16 bolts were driven to firmly hold Cygnus in place to the station.

“Cygnus is now bolted to the ISS while flying 260 miles about the continent of Australia,” confirmed Houston Mission Control.

Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft blasts off on July 13  2014 from Launch Pad 0A at NASA Wallops Flight Facility , VA, on the Orb-2 mission and loaded with over 3000 pounds of science experiments and supplies for the crew aboard the International Space Station.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft blasts off on July 13, 2014 from Launch Pad 0A at NASA Wallops Flight Facility , VA, on the Orb-2 mission and loaded with over 3000 pounds of science experiments and supplies for the crew aboard the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Cygnus roared to orbit during a spectacular blastoff on July 13 atop an Orbital Sciences Corp. Antares rocket on the Orb-2 mission at 12:52 p.m. (EDT) from the beachside Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

The US/Italian built pressurized Cygnus cargo freighter delivered 1,657 kg (3653 lbs) of cargo to the ISS Expedition 40 crew including over 700 pounds (300 kg) of science experiments and instruments, crew supplies, food, water, computer equipment, spacewalk tools and student research experiments.

Student Space Flight teams at NASA Wallops.  Science experiments from these students representing 15 middle and high schools across  America were selected to fly aboard the Orbital Sciences Cygnus Orb-2 spacecraft which launched to the ISS from NASA Wallops, VA, on July 13, 2014, as part of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP).  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Student Space Flight teams at NASA Wallops
Science experiments from these students representing 15 middle and high schools across America were selected to fly aboard the Orbital Sciences Cygnus Orb-2 spacecraft which launched to the ISS from NASA Wallops, VA, on July 13, 2014, as part of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP). Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The crew will begin work today to remove the Centerline Berthing Camera System that provided the teams with a view of berthing operations through the hatch window.

Swanson will then pressurize and outfit the vestibule area between Harmony and Cygnus. After conducting leak checks they will open the hatch to Cygnus either later today or tomorrow and begin the unloading process, including retrieving a stash of highly desired fresh food.

The wide ranging science cargo and experiments includes a flock of 28 Earth imaging nanosatellites and deployers, student science experiments and small cubesat prototypes that may one day fly to Mars.

“Every flight is critical,” said Frank Culbertson, Orbital’s executive vice president of the advanced programs group, at a post launch briefing at NASA Wallops. Culbertson was a NASA shuttle commander and also flew aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

“We carry a variety of types of cargo on-board, which includes food and basic supplies for the crew, and also the research.”

The cargo mission was crucial since the crew supply margin would have turned uncomfortably narrow by the Fall of 2014.

Cygnus will remain attached to the station approximately 30 days until August 15.

For the destructive and fiery return to Earth, the crew will load Cygnus with approximately 1,340 kg (2950 lbs) of trash for disposal upon atmospheric reentry over the Pacific Ocean approximately five days later after undocking.

The Orb-2 launch was postponed about a month from June 9 to conduct a thorough re-inspection of the two Russian built and US modified Aerojet AJ26 engines that power the rocket’s first stage after a test failure of a different engine on May 22 at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi resulted in extensive damage.

The July 13 liftoff marked the fourth successful launch of the 132 foot tall Antares in the past 15 months, Culbertson noted.

The first Antares was launched from NASA Wallops in April 2013. And the Orb-2 mission also marks the third deployment of Cygnus in less than a year.

Orbital Sciences was awarded a $1.9 Billion supply contract by NASA to deliver 20,000 kilograms (44,000 pounds) of research experiments, crew provisions, spare parts and hardware for 8 flights to the ISS through 2016 under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) initiative.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing ISS, OCO-2, GPM, Curiosity, Opportunity, Orion, SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital Sciences, MAVEN, MOM, Mars and more Earth & Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Cygnus Cargo Craft Closing In for Space Station Berthing on July 16 – Watch Live

The Cygnus commercial cargo craft is rapidly closing in on the International Space Station (ISS) for an expected berthing on Wednesday morning, July 16, following a spectacular lunchtime blastoff from the Virginia shore on Sunday, July 13, carrying over one and a half tons of supplies and science experiments for the six man crew.

During a three day orbital chase, mission controllers are executing a series of carefully choreographed thruster firings to maneuver the private Orbital Sciences Cygnus ever closer to the space station.

You can watch the final rendezvous and berthing sequence live on NASA TV on Wednesday starting at 5:15 a.m.

Watch the streaming NASA TV webcast here at – http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv

All systems “green” reported Orbital Sciences as of about 6 p.m. Tuesday evening, July 15.

In this photo posted to Twitter by Flight Engineer Alexander Gerst, he and Commander Steve Swanson (foreground) use the robotics workstation in the International Space Station's cupola.  Image Credit: NASA
In this photo posted to Twitter by Flight Engineer Alexander Gerst, he and Commander Steve Swanson (foreground) use the robotics workstation in the International Space Station’s cupola.
Image Credit: NASA

Cygnus orbit was 415 x 409 km and some 4 kilometers below and 270 kilometers behind the ISS. It is closing in at 23 km/hour using its 32 thrusters.

Cygnus roared to orbit during the flawless July 13 blastoff of the Orbital Sciences Corp. Antares rocket at 12:52 p.m. (EDT) from the beachside Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

The two stage rocket ascended very slowly after ignition with a mounting sound and deafening crescendo that reverberated across the local Virginia viewing area. It put on a spectacular sky show before disappearing into the clouds after about 40 seconds or so.

The 13 story Antares lofted the Cygnus christened “Janet Voss” in honor of the late shuttle astronaut bound for the space station and packed with a wide range of science experiments and essential supplies.

ISS Expedition 40 crew members Commander Steve Swanson of NASA and Alexander Gerst of the European Space Agency conducted a last minute practice session today at the robotics work station inside the domed cupola.

They used the Robotics Onboard Trainer, or ROBoT, to practice techniques for capturing Cygnus with Canadarm2, said NASA.

Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft blasts off on July 13  2014 from Launch Pad 0A at NASA Wallops Flight Facility , VA, on the Orb-2 mission and loaded with over 3000 pounds of science experiments and supplies for the crew aboard the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft blasts off on July 13 2014 from Launch Pad 0A at NASA Wallops Flight Facility , VA, on the Orb-2 mission and loaded with over 3000 pounds of science experiments and supplies for the crew aboard the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

They are expected to capture the private cargo freighter at approximately 6:39 a.m. (EDT) using the stations 57-foot (17-meter) Canadarm2 robotic arm.

Live coverage will then pause as the crew makes final preparations.

NASA will resume the live webcast at 8:30 a.m. EDT for the berthing of Cygnus.

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 during Orb-1 mission in January 2014. Credit: NASA TV

Mission Control in Houston will command the arm to move Cygnus into place for its installation at the Earth-facing port on the Harmony module expected to take place some 15 minutes later at around 8:45 a.m.

The Antares/Cygnus Orbital-2 (Orb-2) mission is the second of eight cargo resupply missions to the ISS under Orbital’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA.

The pressurized Cygnus cargo freighter will deliver 1,657 kg (3653 lbs) of cargo to the ISS Expedition 40 crew including over 700 pounds (300 kg) of science experiments and instruments, crew supplies, food, water, computer equipment, spacewalk tools and student research experiments.

The wide ranging science cargo and experiments includes a flock of 29 nanosatellites and deployers, student science experiments and small cubesat prototypes that may one day fly to Mars.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing ISS, OCO-2, GPM, Curiosity, Opportunity, Orion, SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital Sciences, MAVEN, MOM, Mars and more Earth & Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

How to Watch Spectacular Antares Commercial Launch to ISS on July 13 – Complete Viewing Guide

Orbital 2 Launch from NASA Wallops Island, VA on July 12, 2014- Time of First Sighting Map
This map shows the rough time at which you can first expect to see Antares after it is launched on July 12, 2014. It represents the time at which the rocket will reach 5 degrees above the horizon and varies depending on your location . We have selected 5 degrees as it is unlikely that you’ll be able to view the rocket when it is below 5 degrees due to buildings, vegetation, and other terrain features. As an example, using this map when observing from Washington, DC shows that Antares will reach 5 degrees above the horizon more after than a minute. Credit: Orbital Sciences
See more trajectory viewing maps and NASA TV broadcast link below
Story updated[/caption]

NASA WALLOPS FLIGHT FACILITY, VA – Catching a break from nearly relentless and damaging thunderstorms along the US East coast, Orbital Sciences Corp. was finally able to roll their commercial Antares rocket out to its beachside launch pad at NASA Wallops Flight Facility, VA, early this morning, July 10, following a weather postponement that pushed the scheduled liftoff back by one day to Saturday, July 12 from Friday, July 11.

UPDATE: Orbital Sciences Corp. has postponed the launch of its Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station until 12:52 p.m. EDT on Sunday, July 13, from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport’s Pad 0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Severe weather in the Wallops area has repeatedly interrupted Orbital’s operations schedule leading up to the launch.

The long delayed blastoff of the privately developed Antares rocket on a critical cargo mission bound for the International Space Station (ISS) and packed with science experiments is now slated for 1:14 p.m. on July 12 12:52 p.m. EDT on Sunday, July 13 from Launch Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA Wallops Island on Virginia’s Eastern shore.

Antares is carrying the Orbital Sciences Cygnus cargo logistics spacecraft to orbit on the Orbital-2 (Orb-2) mission. It is the second of eight cargo resupply missions to the ISS under Orbital’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA.

Here’s our complete guide on “How to See the Antares/Cygnus July 12 Blastoff” – chock full of viewing maps and trajectory graphics (above and below) from a variety of prime viewing locations; including historic and notable landmarks in Philadelphia, Washington, DC., NYC, New Jersey, Virginia and more.

US National National Mall Antares Orb-2 trajectory. Credit: Orbital Sciences
US National National Mall Antares Orb-2 trajectory. Credit: Orbital Sciences

If you have never seen a rocket launch, this one could be for you especially since it’s now on the weekend and you don’t have to take the long trek to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Depending on local weather conditions, portions of the daylight liftoff could be visible to millions of spectators along the US Eastern seaboard stretching from South Carolina to Massachusetts.

The launch window on Sunday, July 13 opens at 12:52 p.m. for a duration of 5 minutes.

NASA will broadcast the Antares launch live on NASA TV starting at 12 Noon – http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv

Philadelphia - Antares Orb-2 trajectory. Credit: Orbital Sciences
Philadelphia – Antares Orb-2 trajectory. Credit: Orbital Sciences

In the event of a delay for any reason the next available launch opportunity is Sunday, July 13 at 12:52 p.m.

The weather prognosis for both days this weekend is currently excellent.

The weather forecast shows a probability of acceptable weather at 80% GO on Saturday and improves to 90% GO on Sunday. Of course the weather can change on a dime.

Certainly the best viewing of all will be in the mid-Atlantic region closest to Wallops Island.

So if you have the opportunity to observe the launch locally, you’ll get a magnificent view and hear the rockets thunder at either the NASA Wallops Visitor Center or the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge/Assateague National Seashore.

For more information about the Wallops Visitors Center, including directions, see: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/wallops/visitorcenter

NASA will have special “countdown speakers” set up at the NASA Wallops Visitor Center, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge/Assateague National Seashore and Ocean City inlet.

Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft await launch on Orb 2 mission on July 13, 2014 from Launch Pad 0A at NASA Wallops Flight Facility Facility, VA. LADEE lunar mission launch pad 0B stands adjacent to right of Antares. Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft await launch on Orb 2 mission on July 13, 2014 from Launch Pad 0A at NASA Wallops Flight Facility Facility, VA. LADEE lunar mission launch pad 0B stands adjacent to right of Antares. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Orbital Sciences Antares rocket and Cygnus cargo spacecraft are set to blast off on July 11, 2014 on the Orb-2 mission from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, bound for the International Space Station (ISS).  The rocket undergoes processing at the Horizontal Integration Facility at NASA Wallops during visit by Universe Today/Ken Kremer.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Orbital Sciences Antares rocket and Cygnus cargo spacecraft are set to blast off on July 12, 2014 on the Orb-2 mission from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, bound for the International Space Station (ISS). The rocket undergoes processing at the Horizontal Integration Facility at NASA Wallops during visit by Universe Today/Ken Kremer. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The Orb-2 launch was postponed about a month from June 10 to conduct a thorough re-inspection of the two Russian built and US modified Aerojet AJ26 engines that power the rocket’s first stage after a test failure of a different engine on May 22 at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi resulted in extensive damage.

I was granted a visit to the Orbital Sciences Antares rocket integration facility at NASA Wallops recently as the engine re-inspection work by Aerojet engineers was winding down and ultimately resulted in approval to launch. See my Antares/Cygnus Orb-2 rocket photos herein.

The pressurized Cygnus cargo freighter will deliver 1,657 kg (3653 lbs) of cargo to the ISS including science experiments and instruments, crew supplies, food, water, computer equipment, spacewalk tools and student research experiments.

Cygnus will remain berthed at the station for 40 days.

For the destructive and fiery return to Earth, Cygnus will be loaded with approximately 1,346 kg (2967 lbs) of trash for disposal upon atmospheric reentry.

Battery Park, NYC - Antares Orb-2 trajectory. Credit: Orbital Sciences
Battery Park, NYC – Antares Orb-2 trajectory. Credit: Orbital Sciences

Despite the 1 day delay, an on time launch on Saturday will still result in Cygnus arrival at the ISS on July 15. The flight time to the ISS reduced from approximately 3 days to 2 days.

Station commander Steven Swanson of NASA and Flight Engineer Alexander Gerst of the European Space Agency (ESA) will grapple and berth Cygnus using the stations 57 foot-long robotic arm onto the Earth-facing port of the station’s Harmony module.

Orbital Sciences was awarded a $1.9 Billion supply contract by NASA to deliver 20,000 kilograms of research experiments, crew provisions, spare parts and hardware for 8 flight to the ISS through 2016 under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) initiative.

The July mission marks the second operational Antares/Cygnus flight.

The two stage Antares rocket stands 133 feet tall. It takes about 10 minutes from launch until separation of Cygnus from the Antares vehicle.

SpaceX has a similar resupply contract using their Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo carrier and just completed their 3rd operational mission to the ISS in May.

Atlantic City, NJ - Antares Orb-2 trajectory. Credit: Orbital Sciences
Atlantic City, NJ – Antares Orb-2 trajectory. Credit: Orbital Sciences

Watch for Ken’s onsite Antares Orb-2 mission reports from NASA Wallops, VA.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing ISS, OCO-2, GPM, Curiosity, Opportunity, Orion, SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital Sciences, MAVEN, MOM, Mars and more Earth & Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

…………….

Learn more about NASA’s Mars missions and Orbital Sciences Antares ISS launch on July 12 from NASA Wallops, VA in July and more about SpaceX, Boeing and commercial space and more at Ken’s upcoming presentations.

July 11/12: “Antares/Cygnus ISS Launch from Virginia” & “Space mission updates”; Rodeway Inn, Chincoteague, VA, evening

Iwo Jima Memorial -  - Antares Orb-2 trajectory. Credit: Orbital Sciences
Iwo Jima Memorial – – Antares Orb-2 trajectory. Credit: Orbital Sciences
ATK built 2nd stage integrated onto 1st stage of Orbital Sciences Antares rocket slated for July 11, 2014 launch on the Orb-2 mission from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, bound for the ISS.  The rocket undergoes processing at the Horizontal Integration Facility at NASA Wallops during visit by Universe Today/Ken Kremer.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
ATK built 2nd stage integrated onto 1st stage of Orbital Sciences Antares rocket slated for July 11, 2014 launch on the Orb-2 mission from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, bound for the ISS. The rocket undergoes processing at the Horizontal Integration Facility at NASA Wallops during visit by Universe Today/Ken Kremer. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Antares Rocket Engine Suffers Significant Failure During Testing

Hotfire test of Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ26 engines on the E-1 Test Stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center on Jan 17, 2014. Credit: NASA
See up close AJ26 photos below[/caption]

A Russian built rocket engine planned for future use in the first stage of Orbital Sciences Corp. commercial Antares rocket launching to the International Space Station failed during pre-launch acceptance testing on Thursday afternoon, May 22, at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.

“There was a test failure at Stennis yesterday afternoon (May 22),” Orbital Sciences spokesman Barry Beneski told Universe Today.

The Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ26 rocket engine failed with extensive damage about halfway through the planned test aimed at qualifying the engine for an Antares flight scheduled for early next year.

“Engineers are examining data to determine the cause of the failure,” Beneski told me.

The test was initiated at about 3:00 p.m. EDT on Thursday and the anomaly occurred approximately 30 seconds into the planned 54-second test.

“It terminated prematurely, resulting in extensive damage to the engine,” Orbital said in a statement.

An investigation into the incident by Aerojet and NASA has begun. The cause of the failure is not known.

“During hot-fire testing on May 22 at NASA’s Stennis Space Center, Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AJ26 engine experienced a test anomaly. The company is leading an investigation to determine the cause,” Aerojet spokesperson Jessica Pieczonka told Universe Today.

Up close view of two AJ26 first stage engines at the base of an Antares rocket during exclusive visit by Ken Kremer/Universe Today.  These engines powered the successful Antares  liftoff on Jan. 9, 2014 at NASA Wallops, Virginia.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Up close view of two AJ26 first stage engines at the base of an Antares rocket at NASA Wallops during exclusive visit by Ken Kremer/Universe Today. These engines powered the successful Antares liftoff on Jan. 9, 2014 at NASA Wallops, Virginia. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Fortunately no one was hurt.

“There were no injuries,” Pieczonka confirmed to me.

A team of NASA, Orbital Sciences Corporation, Aerojet Rocketdyne and Lockheed Martin engineers tests all of the AJ26 engines on the E-1 Test Stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center before delivering them to the launch site at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

The testing program began in November 2010.

“Stennis will perform checkouts to the facility to ensure its operational integrity,” NASA Stennis spokesperson Rebecca Strecker told me.

Antares first stage is powered by a pair of liquid oxygen and kerosene fueled AJ26-62 engines that deliver a combined 734,000 pounds (3265 kilonewtons) of sea level thrust.

To date, the AJ26 engines have performed flawlessly through a total of three Antares launches from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

They measure 3.3 meters (10.9 feet) in height and weigh 1590 kg (3,500 lb.).

Side view of two AJ26 first stage engines at the base of an Antares rocket during exclusive visit by Ken Kremer/Universe Today.  These engines powered the successful Antares  liftoff on Jan. 9, 2014 at NASA Wallops, Virginia.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Side view of two AJ26 first stage engines at the base of an Antares rocket during exclusive visit by Ken Kremer/Universe Today. These engines powered the successful Antares liftoff on Jan. 9, 2014 at NASA Wallops, Virginia. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The next Antares rocket is slated to blastoff on June 10 with the Cygnus cargo freighter on the Orb-2 resupply mission to the ISS.

As of today, it’s not known whether the June flight will have to be postponed.

“It is too early to tell if upcoming Antares flights will be affected,” Beneski said.

The most recent launch of the two stage rocket took place this past winter on Jan. 9, 2014 on the Orb-1 resupply mission.

Orbital Sciences technicians at work on two AJ26 first stage engines at the base of an Antares rocket during exclusive visit by Ken Kremer/Universe Today at NASA Wallaps.  These engines powered the successful Antares  liftoff on Jan. 9, 2014 at NASA Wallops, Virginia bound for the ISS.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Orbital Sciences technicians at work on two AJ26 first stage engines at the base of an Antares rocket during exclusive visit by Ken Kremer/Universe Today at NASA Wallaps. These engines powered the successful Antares liftoff on Jan. 9, 2014 at NASA Wallops, Virginia bound for the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The AJ26 engines were originally known as the NK-33 and built in the Soviet Union for their manned moon landing program.

Aerojet extensively modified, checked and tested the NK-33 engines now designated as the AJ26-62 to qualify them for use in the first stage Antares core, which is manufactured in Ukraine by the Yuznoye Design Bureau and based on the Zenit launch vehicle.

“Each test of an AJ26 engine is exciting and affirming because it is in direct support of NASA’s commercial space flight efforts, as well as a continuation of a very successful Stennis partnership with Orbital and Aerojet Rocketdyne,” Stennis Director Rick Gilbrech said in an earlier statement.

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

Orbital Sciences was awarded a $1.9 Billion supply contract by NASA to deliver 20,000 kilograms of research experiments, crew provisions, spare parts and hardware for 8 flights to the ISS through 2016 under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) initiative.

The June mission would be the second operational Antares/Cygnus flight.

SpaceX has a similar resupply contract using their Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo carrier and just completed their 3rd operational mission to the ISS.

Ken Kremer

Antares rocket powered by AJ26 1st stage engines successfully launched on Jan. 9, 2014. Here it undergoes processing at the Horizontal Integration Facility at NASA Wallops, Virginia, during exclusive visit by  Ken Kremer/Universe Today.   Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Antares rocket powered by AJ26 1st stage engines successfully launched on Jan. 9, 2014. Here it undergoes processing at the Horizontal Integration Facility at NASA Wallops, Virginia, during exclusive visit by Ken Kremer/Universe Today. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Historic SpaceX Landing Leg Rocket and Dragon Bound for Station Check Fires Engines at T Minus 1 Week

The historic blast off of the first SpaceX rocket equipped with ‘landing legs’ and also carrying a private Dragon cargo vessel bound for the Space Station is now slated for March 16 following a short and “successful” hot fire check test of the first stage engines on Saturday, March 8.

It’s T Minus 1 week to lift off !

The brief two second ignition of all nine upgraded Merlin 1D engines powering the first stage of SpaceX’s next generation, commercial Falcon 9 rocket at the end of a simulated countdown is a key test required to clear the way for next Sunday’s planned night time lift off at 4:41 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

“Falcon 9 and Dragon conducted a successful static fire test in advance of next week’s CRS-3 launch to station!” SpaceX announced today.

The primary goal of the unmanned SpaceX CRS-3 mission is to deliver over 5000 pounds of science experiments, gear and supplies loaded inside Dragon to the six person crew living and working aboard the International Space Station (ISS) flying in low Earth orbit under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.

“In this final major preflight test, Falcon 9’s 9 first-stage engines were ignited for 2 seconds while the vehicle was held down to the pad,” said SpaceX.

All four landing legs now mounted on Falcon 9 rocket being processed inside hanger at Cape Canaveral, FL for Mar 16 launch.  Credit: SpaceX/Elon Musk
All four landing legs now mounted on Falcon 9 rocket being processed inside hanger at Cape Canaveral, FL for Mar 16 launch. Credit: SpaceX/Elon Musk

The static hot firing is a full up assessment of the rocket, engines, propellant loading and countdown procedures leading to a launch. The engines typically fire for a barely a few seconds.

SpaceX engineers will evaluate the engine firing to ensure all systems are ready for launch.

This commercial Falcon 9 rocket is equipped for the first time with a quartet of landing legs, Elon Musk, the company’s founder and CEO, announced recently as outlined in my story – here.

The attachment of landing legs to the first stage of SpaceX’s next-generation Falcon 9 rocket counts as a major step towards the firm’s future goal of building a fully reusable rocket.

The eventual goal is to accomplish a successful first stage touchdown by the landing legs on solid ground back at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

For this Falcon 9 flight, the rocket will sprout legs for a controlled soft landing in the Atlantic Ocean guided by SpaceX engineers.

Extensive work and testing remains to develop and refine the technology before a land landing will be attempted by the company.

“F9 will continue to land in the ocean until we prove precision control from hypersonic thru subsonic regimes,” Musk says.

1st stage of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket equipped with landing legs and now scheduled for launch to the International Space Station on March 16, 2014 from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: SpaceX/Elon Musk
1st stage of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket equipped with landing legs and now scheduled for launch to the International Space Station on March 16, 2014 from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: SpaceX/Elon Musk

SpaceX hopes the incorporation of landing legs will one day lead to cheaper, reusable boosters that can be manufactured at vastly reduced cost.

The March 16 launch will be the fourth overall for the next generation Falcon 9 rocket, but the first one capped with a Dragon and heading to the massive orbital lab complex.

Falcon 9 and Dragon static fire test on March 8, 2014. Credit: SpaceX
Falcon 9 and Dragon static fire test on March 8, 2014. Credit: SpaceX

Three prior launches of the more powerful Falcon 9 lofting commercial telecom satellites in September and December 2013 and January 2014 were all successful and paved the way for SpaceX’s new mission to the ISS.

And this Dragon is loaded with the heaviest manifest yet.

The research cargo includes 100 protein crystal experiments that will allow scientists to observe the growth of crystals in zero-G.

In the absence of gravity, the crystals will hopefully grow to much larger sizes than here on Earth and afford scientists new insights into designing and developing new drugs and pesticides.

SpaceX is under contract to NASA to deliver 20,000 kg (44,000 pounds) of cargo to the ISS during a dozen Dragon cargo spacecraft flights over the next few years at a cost of about $1.6 Billion.

Next Generation SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasts off with SES-8 communications satellite on Dec. 3, 2013 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Next Generation SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasts off with SES-8 communications satellite on Dec. 3, 2013 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

To date SpaceX has completed two operational cargo resupply missions. The last flight dubbed CRS-2 blasted off a year ago on March 1, 2013 atop the initial version of the Falcon 9 rocket.

If the launch takes place as planned on March 16, Dragon will rendezvous and dock at the Earth facing port on the station’s Harmony module, after a two day orbital chase, on March 18.

The Harmony port was recently vacated by the Orbital Sciences built Cygnus cargo spacecraft to make way for Dragon.

Both the Dragon and Cygnus resupply spacecraft were privately developed with seed money from NASA in a public-private partnership in order to restore the cargo up mass capability the US completely lost following the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle orbiters in 2011.

The Dragon docking will take place a few days after Monday’s (March 10) scheduled departure of three crew members aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule.

Watch the Soyuz leave live on NASA TV.

The departure of Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy along with NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins marks the end of Expedition 38 and the beginning of Expedition 39.

It also leaves only a three person crew on board to greet the Dragon.

The Soyuz return to Earth comes amidst the ongoing Crimean crisis as tensions continue to flare between Russian, Ukraine and the West.

American and station partner astronauts are 100% dependent on Russia’s three seat Soyuz capsule and rocket for rides to the ISS and back.

Expedition 38 crew members proudly sport their national flags in this March 2014 picture from the International Space Station. Pictured (clockwise from top center) are Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, commander; Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Koichi Wakata, Russian cosmonaut Sergey Ryazanskiy, NASA astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Mike Hopkins, and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin, all flight engineers. Credit: NASA
Expedition 38 crew members proudly sport their national flags in this March 2014 picture from the International Space Station. Pictured (clockwise from top center) are Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, commander; Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Koichi Wakata, Russian cosmonaut Sergey Ryazanskiy, NASA astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Mike Hopkins, and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin, all flight engineers. Credit: NASA

Command of the station was passed today from Oleg Kotov to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Koichi Wakata.

With the start of Expedition 39, Wakata thus becomes the first Japanese astronaut to command the ISS.

Wakata and NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio with use the stations Canadarm 2 to grapple and berth Dragon to its docking port.

SpaceX Falcon 9/Dragon  CRS-3 mission patch. Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Falcon 9/Dragon CRS-3 mission patch. Credit: SpaceX

Dragon is due to stay at station for about three weeks until April 17.

Then it will undock and set course for a parachute assisted splash down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California.

For the return to Earth, Dragon will be packed with more than 3,500 pounds of highly valuable experiment samples accumulated from the crews onboard research as well as assorted equipment and no longer need items.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, Orion, Chang’e-3, LADEE, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more planetary and human spaceflight news. Learn more at Ken’s upcoming presentations at the NEAF astro/space convention on April 12/13.

And watch for Ken’s upcoming SpaceX launch coverage at Cape Canaveral & the Kennedy Space Center press site.

Ken Kremer

Private Cygnus Cargo Carrier departs Space Station Complex

Following a picture perfect blastoff from NASA’s frigid Virginia spaceport and a flawless docking at the International Space Station (ISS) in mid-January, the privately built Cygnus cargo resupply vehicle has completed its five week long and initial operational station delivery mission and departed the facility early this morning, Tuesday, Feb. 18.

The Expedition 38 crewmembers Michael Hopkins of NASA and Koichi Wakata of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) demated the Orbital Sciences Cygnus commercial spacecraft from the Earth-facing port of the Harmony node using the Canadian built robotic arm at about 5:15 a.m. EST.

The cylindrically shaped ship was released from the grappling snare on the terminus of the 57 foot long extended arm at about 6:41 a.m. EST and with a slight shove as both vehicles were flying at 17500 mph and some 260 miles (415 km) altitude above Earth over the southern tip of Argentina and the South Atlantic Ocean.

The astronauts were working at a robotics work station in the windowed Cupola module facing the Earth. The arm was quickly pulled back about 5 feet (1.5 m) after triggering the release from the grappling pin.

NASA TV carried the operation live. Station and arm cameras provided spectacular video views of the distinctive grey cylindrical Cygnus back dropped by the massive, cloud covered blue Earth as it was released and sped away.

The Cygnus private cargo craft built by Orbital Sciences Corp. was released from the station's robotic arm at 6:41am EST, Feb 18. It will burn up in Earth's atmosphere on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. Credit: NASA TV
The Cygnus private cargo craft built by Orbital Sciences Corp. was released from the station’s robotic arm at 6:41am EST, Feb 18. It will burn up in Earth’s atmosphere on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. Credit: NASA TV

Cygnus was commanded to fire its jets for the departure maneuvers to quickly retreat away from the station. It was barely a speck only 5 minutes after the arm release maneuver by Wakata and Hopkins.

“The departure was nominal,” said Houston mission control. “Cygnus is on its way.”

The solar powered Cygnus is America’s newest commercial space freighter and was built by Orbital Sciences Corporation with seed money from NASA in a public-private partnership aimed at restoring the cargo up mass capabilities lost following the retirement of NASA’s space shuttles in 2011.

Cygnus, as well as the SpaceX Dragon cargo vessel, functions as an absolutely indispensable “lifeline” to keep the massive orbiting outpost alive and humming with the science for which it was designed.

The Cygnus private cargo craft built by Orbital Sciences Corp. was released from the station's robotic arm at 6:41am EST, Feb 18. It will burn up in Earth's atmosphere on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. Credit: NASA TV
The Cygnus private cargo craft built by Orbital Sciences Corp. was released from the station’s robotic arm at 6:41am EST, Feb 18. It will burn up in Earth’s atmosphere on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. Credit: NASA TV

The freighter delivered a treasure trove of 1.5 tons of vital research experiments, crew provisions, two dozen student science projects, belated Christmas presents, fresh fruit and more to the million pound orbiting lab complex and its six man crew.

The milestone flight dubbed Orbital 1, or Orb-1, began with the flawless Jan. 9 blast off of Cygnus mounted atop Orbital Sciences’ two stage, private Antares booster on the maiden operational launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility along Virginia’s eastern shore. See a gallery of launch photos and videos – here and here.

“Today’s launch gives us the cargo capability to keep the station going,” said Frank Culbertson, executive vice president and general manager of Orbital’s advanced spaceflight programs group, and former Space Shuttle astronaut.

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

And NASA’s commercial cargo initiative is even more important following the recent extension of station operations to at least 2024.

“I think it’s fantastic that the Administration has committed to extending the station,” Culbertson told me following the launch at NASA Wallops.

“So extending it gives not only commercial companies but also researchers the idea that Yes I can do long term research on the station because it will be there for another 10 years. And I can get some significant data.”

Following a two day orbital chase the Cygnus spacecraft reached the station on Jan. 12.

The ship is named in honor of NASA shuttle astronaut C. Gordon Fullerton who passed away in 2013.

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

Among those were 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 participants of the Student SpaceFlight Experiments Program (SSEP) sponsored by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE).

Over 20 of the students attended the launch at Wallops. The student experiments selected are from 6 middle school and high school teams from Washington, DC, Traverse, MI, Downingtown and Jamestown, PA, North Charleston, SC and Hays County, TX.

Student Space Flight teams at NASA Wallops Science experiments from these students representing six schools across  America were selected to fly aboard the Cygnus spacecraft which launched to the ISS from NASA Wallops, VA, on Jan . 9, 2014, as part of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP).  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Student Space Flight teams at NASA Wallops
These are among the students benefiting from ISS extension
Science experiments from these students representing six schools across America were selected to fly aboard the Cygnus spacecraft which launched to the ISS from NASA Wallops, VA, on Jan . 9, 2014, as part of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP). Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

“More than half the student experiments were activated within four days of arrival,” Dr. Jeff Goldstein, Director of the NCESSE, told Universe Today exclusively.

Ant colonies from three US states were also on board to study “swarm behavior.” The “ants in space” experiment was among the first to be unloaded from Cygnus to insure they are well fed for their expedition on how they fare and adapt in zero gravity.

33 cubesats were also aboard. Several of those were deployed last week from the Japanese Experiment Module airlock.

The Orbital-1 mission was the first of 8 operational cargo logistics flights scheduled under Orbital Sciences’ multi-year $1.9 Billion Commercial Resupply Services contract (CRS) with NASA to deliver 20,000 kg (44,000 pounds) of cargo through 2016.

Cygnus was berthed at the ISS for some 37 days.

After fully unpacking the 2,780 pounds (1,261 kilograms) of supplies packed inside Cygnus, the crew reloaded it with all manner of no longer need trash and have sent it off to a fiery and destructive atmospheric reentry to burn up high over the Pacific Ocean on Feb. 19.

“The cargo ship is now a trash ship,” said NASA astronaut Cady Coleman.

“Getting rid of the trash frees up a lot of valuable and much needed space on the station.”

When it reaches a sufficiently safe separation distance from the ISS, mission controllers will fire its engines two times to slow the Cygnus and begin the final deorbit sequence starting at about 8:12 a.m. on Wednesday.

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

Cygnus departure is required to make way for the next private American cargo freighter – the SpaceX Dragon, which is now slated to blast off from Cape Canaveral, Florida on March 16 atop the company’s upgraded Falcon 9 booster.

Two additional Antares/Cygnus flights are slated for this year.

They are scheduled to lift off around May 1 and early October, said Culbertson.

Indeed there will be a flurry of visiting vehicles to the ISS throughout this year and beyond – creating a space traffic jam of sorts.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Orbital Sciences, SpaceX, commercial space, Orion, Chang’e-3, LADEE, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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

Extend ISS to 2050 as Stepping Stone to Future Deep Space Voyages – Orbital VP/Astronaut tells Universe Today

The International Space Station could potentially function far beyond its new extension to 2024. Perhaps out to 2050. The ISS as seen from the crew of STS-119. Credit: NASA
Story updated[/caption]

WALLOPS ISLAND, VA – Just days ago, the Obama Administration approved NASA’s request to extend the lifetime of the International Space Station (ISS) to at least 2024. Ultimately this will serve as a stepping stone to exciting deep space voyages in future decades.

“I think this is a tremendous announcement for us here in the space station world,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, at a press briefing on Jan. 8.

But there’s really “no reason to stop it there”, said Frank Culbertson, VP at Orbital Sciences and former NASA astronaut and shuttle commander, to Universe Today when I asked him for his response to NASA’s station extension announcement.

“It’s fantastic!” Culbertson told me, shortly after we witnessed the picture perfect blastoff of Orbital’s Antares/Cygnus rocket on Jan. 9 from NASA’s Wallops launch facility in Virginia, bound for the ISS.

“In my opinion, if it were up to me, we would fly it [the station] to 2050!” Culbertson added with a smile. “Of course, Congress would have to agree to that.”

Gerstenmaier emphasized that the extension will allow both the research and business communities to plan for the longer term and future utilization, be innovative and realize a much greater return on their investments in scientific research and capital outlays.

“The station is really our stepping stone,” Robert Lightfoot, NASA Associate Administrator, told me at Wallops following Antares launch.

The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) – which is searching for elusive dark matter – was one of the key science experiments that Gerstenmaier cited as benefitting greatly from the ISS extension to 2024. The AMS is the largest research instrument on the ISS.

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 on Jan. 12, 2014. Credit: NASA TV

The extension will enable NASA, the academic community and commercial industry to plan much farther in the future and consider ideas not even possible if the station was de-orbited in 2020 according to the existing timetable.

Both the Antares rocket and Cygnus cargo freighter are private space vehicles developed and built by Orbital Sciences with seed money from NASA in a public-private partnership to keep the station stocked with essential supplies and research experiments and to foster commercial spaceflight.

So I asked Culbertson and Lightfoot to elaborate on the benefits of the ISS extension to NASA, scientific researchers and commercial company’s like Orbital Sciences.

“First I think it’s fantastic that the Administration has committed to extending the station, said Culbertson. “They have to work with the ISS partners and there is a lot to be done yet. It’s a move in the right direction.”

“There is really no reason to stop operations on the space station until it is completely no longer usable. And I think it will be usable for a very long time because it is very built and very well maintained.”

“If it were up to me, we would fly it to 2050!”

“NASA and the engineers understand the station very well. I think they are operating it superbly.”

Birds take flight as Antares lifts off for Space Station from Virginia Blastoff of Antares commercial rocket built by Orbital Sciences on Jan. 9, 2014 from Launch Pad 0A at NASA Wallops Flight Facility, VA on a mission for NASA bound for the International Space Station and loaded with science experiments. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer
Birds take flight as Antares lifts off for Space Station from Virginia Blastoff of Antares commercial rocket built by Orbital Sciences on Jan. 9, 2014 from Launch Pad 0A at NASA Wallops Flight Facility, VA on a mission for NASA bound for the International Space Station and loaded with science experiments.
Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer

“The best thing about the station is it’s now a research center. And it is really starting to ramp up. It’s not there yet. But it is now finished [the assembly] as a station and a laboratory.”

“The research capability is just starting to move in the right direction.”

The Cygnus Orbital 1 cargo vehicle launched on Jan. 9 was loaded with approximately 2,780 pounds/1,261 kilograms of cargo for the ISS crew for NASA including vital science experiments, computer supplies, spacewalk tools, food, water, clothing and experimental hardware.

The research investigations alone accounted for over 1/3 of the total cargo mass. It included a batch of 23 student designed experiments representing over 8700 students sponsored by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE).

“So extending it [ISS] gives not only commercial companies but also researchers the idea that ‘Yes I can do long term research on the station because it will be there for another 10 years. And I can get some significant data.”

“I think that’s really important for them [the researchers] to understand, that it will be backed for that long time and that they won’t be cut off short in the middle of preparing an experiment or flying it.”

Robert Lightfoot; NASA Associate Administrator, and Frank Culbertson; executive vice president and general manager of Orbital's advanced spaceflight programs group and former Space Shuttle commander, at NASA Wallops Flight Facility, VA discuss extension of the International Space Station lifetime following Jan. 9 Antares/Cygnus blastoff bound for the station loaded with science experiments.  Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Robert Lightfoot; NASA Associate Administrator, and Frank Culbertson; executive vice president and general manager of Orbital’s advanced spaceflight programs group and former Space Shuttle commander, at NASA Wallops Flight Facility, VA discuss extension of the International Space Station lifetime following Jan. 9 Antares/Cygnus blastoff bound for the station loaded with science experiments. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

“So I think that first of all it demonstrates the commitment of the government to continue with NASA. But also it presents a number of opportunities for a number of people.”

What does the ISS extension mean for Orbital?

The purpose for NASA and Orbital Sciences in building Antares and Cygnus was to restore America’s ability to launch cargo to the ISS – following the shutdown of NASA’s space shuttles – by using commercial companies and their business know how to thereby significantly reduce the cost of launching cargo to low Earth orbit.

“As far as what it [the ISS extension] means for Orbital and other commercial companies – Yes, it does allow us to plan long term for what we might be able to do in providing a service for NASA in the future,” Culbertson replied.

“It also gives us the chance to be innovative and maybe invest in some improvements in how we can do this [cargo service] – to make it more cost effective, more efficient, turnaround time quicker, go more often, go a lot more often!”

“So it allows us the chance to think long term and make sure we can get a return on our investment.”

What does the ISS extension mean for NASA?

“The station is really our stepping stone,” Robert Lightfoot, NASA Associate Administrator, told Universe Today. “If you use that analogy of stepping stones and the next stone. We need to use this stone to know what the next stone looks like. So we can get ready. Whether that’s research or whether that things about the human body. You don’t want to jump off that platform before you are ready.”

“We are learning every day how to live and operate in space. Fortunately on the ISS we are close to home. So if something comes up we can get [the astronauts] home.”

The ISS extension is also the pathway to future exciting journey’s beyond Earth and into deep space, Culbertson and Lightfoot told Universe Today.

“It actually also presents a business opportunity that can be expanded not just to the station but to other uses in spaceflight, such as exploration to Asteroids, Mars and wherever we are going,” said Culbertson.

And we hope it will extend to other civilian uses in space also. Maybe other stations in space will follow this one and we’ll be able to participate in that.”

Lightfoot described the benefits for astronaut crews.

“The further out we go, the more we need to know about how to operate in space, what kind of protection we need, what kind of research we need for the astronauts,” said Lightfoot.

“Orbital is putting systems up there that allow us to test more and more. Get more time. Because when we get further away, we can’t get home as quick. So those are the kinds of things we can do.

“So with this extension I can make those investments as an Agency. And not just us, but also our academic research partners, our industry partners, and the launch market too is part of this.”

He emphasized the benefits for students, like those who flew experiments on Cygnus, and how that would inspire the next generation of explorers!

“You saw the excitement we had today with the students at the viewing area. For example with those little cubesats, 4 inches by 4 inches, that they worked on, and got launched today!”

“That’s pretty cool! And that’s exactly what we need to be doing!

Student Space Flight teams at NASA Wallops Science experiments from these students representing six schools across  America were selected to fly aboard the Cygnus spacecraft which launched to the ISS from NASA Wallops, VA, on Jan . 9, 2014, as part of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP).  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Student Space Flight teams at NASA Wallops
These are among the students benefiting from ISS extension
Science experiments from these students representing six schools across America were selected to fly aboard the Cygnus spacecraft which launched to the ISS from NASA Wallops, VA, on Jan . 9, 2014, as part of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP). Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

“So eventually they can take our jobs. And as long as they know that station will be there for awhile, the extension gives them the chance to get the training and learning and do the research we need to take people further out in space.”

“The station is the stepping stone.”

“And it really is important to have this station extension,” Lightfoot explained to me.

The Jan. 9 launch of the Orbital-1 mission is the first of eight operational Antares/Cygnus flights to the space station scheduled through 2016 by Orbital Sciences under its $1.9 Billion Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA to deliver 20,000 kg of cargo to orbit.

Orbital Sciences and SpaceX – NASA’s other cargo provider – will compete for follow on ISS cargo delivery contracts.

The next Antares/Cygnus flight is slated for about May 1 from NASA Wallops.

In an upcoming story, I’ll describe Orbital Sciences’ plans to upgrade both Antares and Cygnus to meet the challenges of the ISS today and tomorrow.

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

Ken Kremer

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
Frank Culbertson; executive vice president and general manager of Orbital's advanced spaceflight programs group and former Space Shuttle commander, and Ken Kremer; Universe Today, at NASA Wallops Flight Facility, VA, discuss extension of the International Space Station lifetime following Jan. 9 Antares/Cygnus blastoff.  Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Frank Culbertson; executive vice president and general manager of Orbital’s advanced spaceflight programs group and former Space Shuttle commander, and Ken Kremer; Universe Today, at NASA Wallops Flight Facility, VA, discuss extension of the International Space Station lifetime following Jan. 9 Antares/Cygnus blastoff. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com