SpaceX Commercial Resupply Dragon Set for Sept. 21 Blastoff to Station – Watch Live

SpaceX Falcon 9 erect at Cape Canaveral launch pad 40 awaiting launch on Sept 20, 2014 on the CRS-4 mission.
Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Story/launch date/headline updated[/caption]

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – SpaceX is on the cusp of launching the company’s fourth commercial resupply Dragon spacecraft mission to the International Space Station (ISS) shortly after midnight, Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014, continuing a rapid fire launch pace and carrying NASA’s first research payload – RapidScat – aimed at conducting Earth science from the stations exterior.

Final preparations for the launch are underway right now at the Cape Canaveral launch pad with the stowage of sensitive late load items including a specially designed rodent habitat housing 20 mice.

Update 20 Sept: Poor weather scrubs launch to Sept. 21 at 1:52 a.m.

Fueling of the two stage rocket with liquid oxygen and kerosene propellants commences in the evening prior to launch.

If all goes well, Saturday’s launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket would be the second in less than two weeks, and the fourth over the past ten weeks. The last Falcon 9 successfully launched the AsiaSat 6 commercial telecom satellite on Sept. 7 – detailed here.

“We are ready to go,” said Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX vice president of mission assurance, at a media briefing at the Kennedy Space Center today, Sept. 19.

Liftoff of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on the CRS-4 mission bound for the ISS is targeted for an instantaneous window at 2:14 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at the moment Earth’s rotation puts Cape Canaveral in the flight path of the ISS.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with Dragon cargo capsule bound for the ISS launched from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL.   File photo.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with Dragon cargo capsule bound for the ISS launched from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. File photo. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Story/launch date/headline updated

You can watch NASA’s live countdown coverage which begins at 1 a.m. on NASA Television and NASA’s Launch Blog: http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/nasatv/

Liftoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla, April 18, 2014.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Liftoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla, April 18, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The weather forecast is marginal at 50/50 with rain showers and thick clouds as the primary concerns currently impacting the launch site.

The Dragon spacecraft is loaded with more than 5,000 pounds of science experiments, spare parts, crew provisions, food, clothing and supplies to the six person crews living and working aboard the ISS soaring in low Earth orbit under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.

The CRS-4 missions marks the start of a new era in Earth science. The truck of the Dragon is loaded Dragon with the $30 Million ISS-Rapid Scatterometer to monitor ocean surface wind speed and direction.

RapidScat is NASA’s first research payload aimed at conducting Earth science from the stations exterior. The stations robot arm will pluck RapidScat out of the truck and attach it to an Earth-facing point on the exterior trusswork of ESA’s Columbus science module.

Dragon will also carry the first 3-D printer to space for studies by the astronaut crews over at least two years.

SpaceX Falcon 9  rests horizontally at Cape Canaveral launch pad 40 awaiting blastoff reset to Sept 21, 2014 on the CRS-4 mission.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 rests horizontally at Cape Canaveral launch pad 40 awaiting blastoff reset to Sept 21, 2014 on the CRS-4 mission. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The science experiments and technology demonstrations alone amount too over 1644 pounds (746 kg) and will support 255 science and research investigations that will occur during the station’s Expeditions 41 and 42 for US investigations as well as for JAXA and ESA.

“This flight shows the breadth of ISS as a research platform, and we’re seeing the maturity of ISS for that,” NASA Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan said during a prelaunch news conference held today, Friday, Sept. 19 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

After a two day chase, Dragon will be grappled and berth at an Earth-facing port on the stations Harmony module.

The Space CRS-4 mission marks the company’s fourth resupply mission to the ISS under a $1.6 Billion contract with NASA to deliver 20,000 kg (44,000 pounds) of cargo to the ISS during a dozen Dragon cargo spacecraft flights through 2016.

SpaceX Dragon resupply spacecraft arrives for successful berthing and docking at the International Space Station on Easter Sunday morning April 20, 2014. Credit: NASA TV
SpaceX Dragon resupply spacecraft arrives for successful berthing and docking at the International Space Station on Easter Sunday morning April 20, 2014. Credit: NASA TV

This week, SpaceX was also awarded a NASA contact to build a manned version of the Dragon dubbed V2 that will ferry astronauts crews to the ISS starting as soon as 2017.

NASA also awarded a second contact to Boeing to develop the CST-100 astronaut ‘space taxi’ to end the nation’s sole source reliance on Russia for astronaut launches in 2017.

Dragon V2 will launch on the same version of the Falcon 9 launching this cargo Dragon

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing SpaceX, Boeing, Sierra Nevada, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, Orion, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

SpaceX Falcon 9 awaits launch on Sept 20, 2014 on the CRS-4 mission. Credit: NASA
SpaceX Falcon 9 awaits launch on Sept 20, 2014 on the CRS-4 mission. Credit: NASA

Return of the SpaceX-3 Dragon to Earth Caps Super Science Mission for NASA

SpaceX-3 Dragon commercial cargo freighter was detached from the ISS at 8 AM EDT on May 18, 2014 and released by station crew at 9:26 AM for splashdown in the Pacific Ocean with science samples and cargo. Credit: NASA
Story updated[/caption]

The 30 day flight of the SpaceX-3 Dragon commercial cargo freighter loaded with a huge cache of precious NASA science experiments including a freezer packed with research samples ended today with a spectacular departure from the orbiting lab complex soaring some 266 miles (428 km) above Earth.

Update 3:05 PM EDT May 18: SpaceX confirms successful splashdown at 3:05 p.m. EDT today.

“Splashdown is confirmed!! Welcome home, Dragon!”

Robotics officers at Mission Control at NASA’s Johnson Space Center detached Dragon from the Earth-facing port of the Harmony module at 8 a.m. EDT (1300 GMT) this morning, Sunday, May 18, 2014 using the stations Canadian-built robotic arm.

Engineers had earlier unbolted all 16 hooks and latches firmly connecting the vehicle to the station in preparation.

NASA astronaut Steve Swanson then commanded the gum dropped shaped Dragon capsule’s release from Canadarm2 as planned at 9:26 a.m. EDT (1326 GMT) while the pair were flying majestically over southern Australia.

The undocking operation was shown live on NASA TV.

The SpaceX Dragon commercial cargo craft was in the grips of the Canadarm2 before being released for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.  Credit: NASA
The SpaceX Dragon commercial cargo craft was in the grips of the Canadarm2 before being released for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. Credit: NASA

Swanson was assisted by Russian cosmonaut Alexander Skvortsov as the US- Russian team were working together inside the domed Cupola module.

Following the cargo ships release by the 57 foot long arms grappling snares, Swanson carefully maneuvered the arm back and away from Dragon as it moved ever so slowly in free drift mode.

It was already four feet distant within three minutes of release.

Three departure burns by the Dragon’s Draco maneuvering thrusters followed quickly in succession and occurred precisely on time at 9:29, 9:30 and 9:38 a.m. EST.

Dragon exited the 200 meter wide keep out zone – an imaginary bubble around the station with highly restricted access – at the conclusion of the 3rd departure burn.

“The Dragon mission went very well. It was very nice to have a vehicle take science equipment to the station, and maybe some day even humans,” Swanson radioed after the safe and successful departure was completed.

“Thanks to everyone who worked on the Dragon mission.”

The private SpaceX Dragon spent a total of 28 days attached to the ISS.

The six person international crew from Russia, the US and Japan on Expeditions 39 and 40 unloaded some 2.5 tons of supplies aboard and then repacked it for the voyage home.

The SpaceX resupply capsule is carrying back about 3500 pounds of spacewalk equipment, vehicle hardware, science samples from human research, biology and biotechnology studies, physical science investigations and education activities, as well as no longer needed trash.

“The space station is our springboard to deep space and the science samples returned to Earth are critical to improving our knowledge of how space affects humans who live and work there for long durations,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for human exploration and operations.

“Now that Dragon has returned, scientists can complete their analyses, so we can see how results may impact future human space exploration or provide direct benefits to people on Earth.”

Among the research investigations conducted that returned samples in the cargo hold were an examination of the decreased effectives of antibiotics in space, better growth of plants in space, T-Cell activation in aging and causes of human immune system depression in the microgravity environment.

The 10 minute long deorbit burn took place as scheduled at 2:10 p.m. EDT (1810 GMT) today.

Dragon returned to Earth for a triple parachute assisted splash down today at around 3:02 p.m. EDT (19:02 GMT) in the Pacific Ocean – some 300 miles west of Baja California.

Dragon is free flying after release from ISS at 9:26 a.m. EDT on May 18, 2014. Credit: NASA
Dragon is free flying after release from ISS at 9:26 a.m. EDT on May 18, 2014. Credit: NASA

It will be retrieved by recovery boats commissioned by SpaceX. The science cargo will be extracted and then delivered to NASA’s Johnson Space Center within 48 hours.

Dragon thundered to orbit atop SpaceX’s powerful new Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket on April 18, from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

This unmanned Dragon delivered about 4600 pounds of cargo to the ISS including over 150 science experiments, a pair of hi tech legs for Robonaut 2, a high definition Earth observing imaging camera suite (HDEV), the laser optical communications experiment (OPALS), the VEGGIE lettuce growing experiment as well as essential gear, spare parts, crew provisions, food, clothing and supplies to the six person crews living and working aboard in low Earth orbit.

Robonaut 2 engineering model equipped with new legs like those heading to the ISS on upcoming SpaceX CRS-3 launch were on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex on March 15, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Robonaut 2 engineering model equipped with new legs like those delivered to the ISS on the SpaceX CRS-3 launch were on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex on March 15, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

It reached the ISS on April 20 for berthing.

Dragon is the only unmanned resupply vessel supply that also returns cargo back to Earth.

The SpaceX-3 mission marks the company’s third resupply mission to the ISS under the $1.6 Billion Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA to deliver 20,000 kg (44,000 pounds) of cargo to the ISS during a dozen Dragon cargo spacecraft flights through 2016.

The SpaceX Dragon is among a trio of American vehicles, including the Boeing CST-100 and Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser vying to restore America’s capability to fly humans to Earth orbit and the space station by late 2017, using seed money from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) in a public/private partnership. The next round of contracts will be awarded by NASA about late summer 2014.

Another significant milestone was the apparently successful attempt by SpaceX to accomplish a controlled soft landing of the Falcon 9 boosters first stage in the Atlantic Ocean for eventual recovery and reuse. It was a first step in a guided 1st stage soft landing back at the Cape.

The next unmanned US cargo mission to the ISS is set for early morning on June 10 with the launch of the Orbital Sciences Cygnus freighter atop an Antares booster from a launch pad at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on the eastern shore of Virginia.

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

Ken Kremer

………

Ken’s upcoming presentation: Mercy College, NY, May 19: “Curiosity and the Search for Life on Mars” and “NASA’s Future Crewed Spaceships.”

Dangling Dextre Digs out Docked Dragon Depot prior to Station Departure

To close out their final week aboard the International Space Station, three of the six Expedition 39 crew members are completing their unloading tasks inside the docked commercial SpaceX Dragon cargo freighter and other duties while teams at Mission Control in Houston conduct delicate robotics work outside with dazzling maneuvers of the Dextre robot to remove the last external experiment from the vessels storage truck.

See a dazzling gallery of photos of Dextre dangling outside the docked Dragon depot – above and below.

On Monday, May 5, the robotics team at NASA Mission Control Center at the Johnson Space Center in Houston carefully guided Canada’s Dextre robotic “handyman” attached to the end of the 57-foot long Canadarm2 to basically dig out the final payload item housed in the unpressurized trunk section at the rear of the SpaceX Dragon cargo vessel docked to the ISS.

Dextre stands for “Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator” and was contributed to the station by the Canadian Space Agency. It measures 12 feet tall and is outfitted with a pair of arms and an array of finely detailed tools to carry out intricate and complex tasks that would otherwise require spacewalking astronauts.

The Canadarm2 with Dextre in its grasp conducts external cargo transfers from the SpaceX Dragon resupply ship.  Credit: NASA TV
The Canadarm2 with Dextre in its grasp conducts external cargo transfers from the SpaceX Dragon resupply ship. Credit: NASA TV

The massive orbiting outpost was soaring some 225 miles above the home planet as Dextre’s work was in progress to remove the Optical PAyload for Lasercomm Science, or OPALS, from the Dragon’s truck.

The next step is to install OPALS on the Express Logistics Carrier-1 (ELC-1) depot at the end of the station’s port truss on Wednesday.

Monday’s attempt was the second try at grappling OPALS. The initial attempt last Thursday “was unsuccessful due to a problem gripping the payload’s grapple fixture with the Special Purpose Dextrous Manipulator, or Dextre,” NASA reported.

A software patch solved the problem.

Canada’s Dextre manipulator attached to Canadarm2 conducts external cargo transfers from the SpaceX Dragon resupply ship.  Credit: NASA TV
Canada’s Dextre manipulator attached to Canadarm2 conducts external cargo transfers from the SpaceX Dragon resupply ship. Credit: NASA TV

Dragon thundered to orbit atop SpaceX’s powerful new Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket on April 18, from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

This unmanned Dragon delivered about 4600 pounds of cargo to the ISS including over 150 science experiments, a pair of hi tech legs for Robonaut 2, a high definition Earth observing imaging camera suite (HDEV), the laser optical communications experiment (OPALS), the VEGGIE lettuce growing experiment as well as essential gear, spare parts, crew provisions, food, clothing and supplies to the six person crews living and working aboard in low Earth orbit, under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.

OPALS uses laser light instead of radio waves to beam back precisely guided data packages to ground stations. The use of lasers should greatly increase the amount of information transmitted over the same period of time, says NASA.

The science experiments carried aboard Dragon are intended for research to be conducted by the crews of ISS Expeditions 39 and 40.

Robotics teams had already pulled out the other payload item from the truck, namely the HDEV imaging suite. It is already transmitting back breathtaking real time video views of Earth from a quartet of video cameras pointing in different directions mounted on the stations exterior.

The SpaceX CRS-3 mission marks the company’s third resupply mission to the ISS under a $1.6 Billion contract with NASA to deliver 20,000 kg (44,000 pounds) of cargo to the ISS during a dozen Dragon cargo spacecraft flights through 2016.

After spending six months in space, Station Commander Koichi Wakata from Japan as well as NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin will be departing the station in a week aboard their Soyuz TMA-11M spacecraft on May 13 at 6:33 p.m. EDT.

They are scheduled to land some 3.5 hours later in the steppes of Kazakhstan at 9:57 p.m. (7:57 a.m. Kazakh time on May 14). The events will be carried live on NASA TV.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon resupply ship launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 18, 2014.   Credit:  Jeff Seibert/Wired4Space
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon resupply ship launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 18, 2014. Credit: Jeff Seibert/Wired4Space
To prepare for the journey home, the trio also completed fit checks on their Russian Sokol launch and entry suits on Monday.

Meanwhile Dragon is also set to depart the station soon on May 18 for a parachute assisted splashdown and recovery by boats in the Pacific Ocean west of Baja California.

Dragon has been docked to the station since arriving on Easter Sunday morning, April 20.

It was grappled using Canadarm 2 and berthed at the Earth facing port of the Harmony module by Commander Wakata and flight engineer Mastracchio while working at the robotics work station inside the seven windowed domed Cupola module.

For the return trip, the Expedition 39 crew is also loading Dragon with precious science samples collected over many months from the crews research activities as well as trash and no longer needed items.

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

Ken Kremer

SpaceX Makes Strides Towards 1st Stage Falcon Rocket Recovery during Space Station Launch

Blastoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 18, 2014. Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace
Story updated[/caption]

The powerful SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that launched successfully on a cargo delivery run for NASA bound for the Space Station on Friday, April 18, from Cape Canaveral, Fla, also had a key secondary objective for the company aimed at experimenting with eventually recovering the rockets first stage via the use of landing legs and leading to the boosters refurbishment and reuse further down the road.

Marking a first of its kind test, this 20 story tall commercial Falcon 9 rocket was equipped with a quartet of landing legs to test controlled soft landing techniques first in the ocean and then back on solid ground at some later date this year or next – by reigniting the 1st stage engines for a guided touchdown.

The 12 foot diameter Falcon 9 rocket would sprout the legs just prior to water impact for the controlled soft landing in the Atlantic Ocean, guided by SpaceX engineers.

'Threading the needle', the Falcon 9/Dragon vehicle passes through the catenary lightning wires as it roars from the pad on the CRS-3 mission.  Credit: nasatech.net
‘Threading the needle’, the Falcon 9/Dragon vehicle passes through the catenary lightning wires as it roars from the pad on the CRS-3 mission. Credit: nasatech.net

Prior to the launch SpaceX managers were careful not to raise expectations.

“The entire recovery of the first stage is completely experimental,” said Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX vice president of mission assurance. “It has nothing to do with the primary mission.”

He estimated the odds of successfully retrieving an intact booster at merely 30 or 40 percent.

Following Friday’s blastoff, SpaceX reported they made significant strides towards that goal of a 1st stage recovery.

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 which launched to the International Space Station on April 18, 2014 from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: SpaceX/Elon Musk

SpaceX engineers had preprogrammed the spent first stage to relight several Merlin 1 D engines after completing the boost phase and stage seperation to stabilize it, reduce its roll rate and then gradually lower its altitude back down to the Atlantic Ocean’s surface for a soft landing attempt and later possible recovery by retrieval ships.

All these critical steps seemed to go fairly well in initial reports that are subject to change.

SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk reported at a post launch briefing and later tweeted further updates that the Falcon 9 first stage actually made a good water landing despite rough seas, with waves swelling at least six feet.

“Roll rate close to zero (v important!).”

“Data upload from tracking plane shows landing in Atlantic was good! Several boats enroute through heavy seas,” Musk tweeted.

Furthermore he reported that the 1st stage survived the ocean touchdown.

“Flight computers continued transmitting for 8 seconds after reaching the water. Stopped when booster went horizontal.”

Because of the high waves, the recovery boats had difficulty reaching the booster in the recovery area located some two hundred miles off shore from Cape Canaveral.

Several previous attempts by SpaceX to recover the first stage via parachutes and thrusters were not successful. So SpaceX adopted this new approach with the landing legs and 1st stage Merlin 1 D engines.

Further details will be proved when they become available.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket liftoff on April 18, 2014 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral, Fla.  Credit: Julian Leek
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket liftoff on April 18, 2014 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral, Fla. Credit: Julian Leek

The attachment of the 25 foot long 1st stage landing legs to SpaceX’s next-generation Falcon 9 rocket for ocean recovery counts as a major step towards the firm’s future goal of building a fully reusable rocket and dramatically lowering launch costs compared to expendable boosters.

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

Musk said that SpaceX is still working out the details on finding a suitable landing location with NASA and the US Air Force.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon resupply ship launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 18, 2014.   Credit:  Jeff Seibert/Wired4Space
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon resupply ship launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 18, 2014. Credit: Jeff Seibert/Wired4Space

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

It will be left to future missions to accomplish a successful first stage touchdown by the landing legs back on solid ground back through a series of ramped up rocket tests at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

“Even though we probably won’t get the stage back, I think we’re really starting to connect the dots of what’s needed,” Musk said at the briefing.

“There are only a few more dots that need to be there to have it all work. I think we’ve got a decent chance of bringing a stage back this year, which would be wonderful.”

Overall Musk was very pleased with the performance of the rocket and the landing leg test.

“I would consider it a success in the sense that we were able to control the boost stage to a zero roll rate, which is previously what has destroyed the stage, an uncontrolled roll, where the on-board nitrogen thrusters weren’t able to control the aerodynamic torque and spun up.”

“This time, with more powerful thrusters and more nitrogen propellant, we were able to null the roll rates.”

“I’m feeling pretty excited,” Musk stated. “This is a happy day. Most important of all is that we did a good job for NASA.”

This extra powerful new version of the Falcon 9 dubbed v1.1 is powered by a cluster of nine of SpaceX’s new Merlin 1D engines that are about 50% more powerful compared to the standard Merlin 1C engines. The nine Merlin 1D engines 1.3 million pounds of thrust at sea level rises to 1.5 million pounds as the rocket climbs to orbit.

Therefore the upgraded Falcon 9 can boost a much heavier cargo load to the ISS, low Earth orbit, geostationary orbit and beyond.

Indeed Dragon is loaded with nearly 5000 pounds of cargo, about double the weight carried previously.

If all goes well, Dragon will reach the ISS early on Easter Sunday morning after a two day orbital chase.

Station crew members Rick Mastracchio and Steven Swanson will grapple the Dragon cargo freighter with the 57 foot long Canadarm2 on Easter Sunday at about 7:14 a.m. and then berth it at the Earth-facing port of the Harmony module.

NASA TV coverage of the Easter Sunday grappling process will begin at 5:45 a.m. with berthing coverage beginning at 9:30 a.m. : http://www.nasa.gov/ntv

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.

Ken Kremer

Rising slowly from Pad 40, the fully loaded Dragon and Falcon 9 v1.1 vehicle begin the mission to ISS. Credit: nasatech.net
Rising slowly from Pad 40, the fully loaded Dragon and Falcon 9 v1.1 vehicle begin the mission to ISS. Credit: nasatech.net

SpaceX Dragon Captured on Film in Orbit Over Paris 25 Minutes After Launch

UPDATE: Thanks to several people on Twitter who pointed out that what is seen in the footage here is the the upper stage of the Falcon 9, the Dragon capsule, and the ejected solar panel covers moving along together in orbit around the Earth. And as Phil Plait pointed out, since this was taken a few minutes after the capsule separated from the rocket upper stage, all the individual things you see here were still near each other in space.

We need to say it: astrophotographer Thierry Legault has done it again! Here’s an absolutely fantastic capture of the SpaceX Dragon capsule just 25 minutes after it launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, as it passed over Europe. Here, Legault captured footage of Dragon crossing the Big Dipper as seen from Paris at 19:50 UTC, April 18, 2014.

“It was an incredible vision: 4 bright dots moving together!” Legault told Universe Today via email.

Check out more of his amazing astrophotography and even some of his tips and tricks at Thierry’s website.

SpaceX Dragon launch to ISS Marches Towards April 18 Liftoff after Helium Leak Forces Scrub – Watch Live

NASA and SpaceX are marching forward towards a Friday, April 18 liftoff attempt for the Falcon 9 rocket sending a commercial Dragon cargo craft on the company’s third resupply mission to the International Space Station following the scrubbed launch attempt on Monday, April 14 – forced by the discovery of a Helium gas leak inside the rocket during the latter stages of the countdown.

An on time blastoff of the upgraded Falcon 9 sets the stage for an Easter Sunday rendezvous and berthing of the Dragon resupply spacecraft at the massive orbiting outpost packed with almost 5000 pounds of science experiments and supplies for the six person crew.

However the weather prognosis is rather iffy for Friday afternoons launch attempt at 3:25:21 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Forecasters predict only a 40 percent “GO” of acceptable weather conditions at the appointed liftoff time of the SpaceX-3 mission – roughly the time when the Earth’s rotation moves the rocket into the plane of the space stations orbit.

Remote cameras set up at SpaceX Falcon 9 launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral.   Adorned with patch - Space for America’s Economic Growth.  Credit: Nicole Solomon
Remote cameras set up at SpaceX Falcon 9 launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral. Adorned with patch – Space for America’s Economic Growth. Credit: Nicole Solomon

Meteorologists with the U.S. Air Force 45th Weather Squadron are predicting a significant chance of rain showers and thunderstorms in the Florida Space coast launch area that could violate three launch rules, namely the Thick Cloud, Lightning and Flight Through Precipitation rules.

In the event of a scrub for any reason on Friday, NASA, SpaceX and Air Force managers approved another backup launch opportunity on Saturday, April 19 at 3:02:42 p.m.

The weather outlook for a Saturday liftoff improves somewhat to 60 percent “GO”.

Originally, Monday and Friday were the only available launch target dates this week.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket preparing for April 18, 2014 liftoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.  Credit: Julian Leek
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket preparing for April 18, 2014 liftoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Julian Leek

Assuming a successful Falcon 9 launch on Friday, station crew members Rick Mastracchio and Steven Swanson will grapple the Dragon cargo freighter with the 57 foot long Canadarm2 on Easter Sunday morning, April 20, at 7:14 a.m. at then berth it at the Earth-facing port of the Harmony module.

You can watch the launch live on NASA TV: http://www.nasa.gov/ntv

NASA TV live coverage will begin at at 2:15 p.m. EDT

SpaceX live launch coverage begins at 2:45 p.m. ET: Webcast at www.spacex.com/webcast

NASA TV coverage of the Easter Sunday grappling process will begin at 5:45 a.m. with berthing coverage beginning at 9:30 a.m. : http://www.nasa.gov/ntv

Monday’s launch attempt was scrubbed about an hour before liftoff when SpaceX mission controllers and engineers detected that a helium valve in the pneumatic system for stage separation between the first and second stages was not holding the specified pressure.

The success of the mission was therefore dependent on the perfect operation of a backup check valve for the stage separation pistons.

Although no technical issues were detected with the backup valve, the anamolous situation violated SpaceX launch rules.

“SpaceX policy is not to launch with any known anomalies,” said SpaceX in a statement.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with Dragon cargo capsule bound for the ISS is slated to launch on April 18, 2014 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL.   File photo.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with Dragon cargo capsule bound for the ISS is slated to launch on April 18, 2014 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. File photo. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The erect Falcon 9 was lowered back to the horizontal position so that SpaceX engineers could swap out the faulty helium valve, as well as conduct a complete inspection of the rocket to look for signs of any other issues that may have contributed to the valve not working as designed, said SpaceX.

This unmanned SpaceX mission dubbed CRS-3 will deliver some 5000 pounds of science experiments, a pair of hi tech legs for Robonaut 2, a high definition imaging camera suite, an optical communications experiment (OPALS) and essential gear, the VEGGIE lettuce growing experiment, spare parts, crew provisions, food, clothing and supplies to the six person crews living and working aboard the ISS soaring in low Earth orbit under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.

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

NASA awarded contracts to SpaceX and competitor Orbital Sciences to develop unmanned cargo freighters via CRS to restore US capability to resupply the ISS following the shutdown of the space shuttle program in 2011.

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 through 2016 at a cost of about $1.6 Billion.

The next launch of Orbital Sciences Antares/Cygnus commercial rocket to the ISS from NASA Wallops, VA, is tentatively slated for May 6. But the target date hinges on when this SpaceX-3 mission actually flies and could slip into mid-June.

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.

Ken Kremer

US Spy Sat and SpaceX Set for Double Barreled Blastoffs After Critical Cape Canaveral Radar Revitalized

The Florida Space Coast is about to ignite with a doubled barreled dose of spectacular rocket launches from Cape Canaveral over the next few days that were suddenly postponed two weeks ago amidst final launch preparations when an electrical short completely knocked out use of the US Air Force’s crucial tracking radar that is mandatory to insure public safety.

A pair of liftoffs vital to US National Security and NASA/SpaceX are now slated for April 10 and April 14 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station after revitalizing the radar systems.

The tracking radar is an absolutely essential asset for the Eastern Range that oversees all launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V is now slated to launch on Thursday, April 10 at 1:45 p.m. EDT.

Artwork for Super Secret NROL-67 payload launching on Atlas V rocket. Credit: NRO/ULA
Artwork for Super Secret NROL-67 payload launching on Atlas V rocket. Credit: NRO/ULA

The Atlas V rocket is carrying the super secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

The SpaceX Falcon 9 is slated to launch on Monday, April 14 at 4:58 p.m. EDT.

The Falcon 9 is lofting a SpaceX Dragon cargo ship and delivering some 5000 pounds of science experiments and supplies for the six man space station crew – under a resupply contract with NASA.

The pair of liftoffs of the Atlas V and Falcon 9 boosters for the NRO and SpaceX/NASA had been slated just days apart on March 25 and March 30, respectively.

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

I was on site at Cape Canaveral Launch Pad 41 photographing the Atlas V rocket carrying the NRO payload in anticipation of the launch.

Shortly thereafter a fire of unexplained origin in the radar equipment unexpected occurred and knocked the tracking radar off line. When no quick fix was possible, both launches were delayed indefinitely pending repairs.

“The tracking radar experienced an electrical short, overheating the unit and rendering the radar inoperable,” said the USAF in a statement I received from the 45th Space Wing that controls the critical launch control systems, communications, computers and radar elements at the Eastern Range.

On Monday, April 7, the Air Force announced that range repairs were on target and that a retired, inactive radar had been brought back online.

“A radar that was previously in standby status has been brought back to operational status while the repair work is being accomplished,” said the USAF in a statement.

A fully functional tracking radar is an absolute requirement to ensure the success and safety of every rocket launch.

Insufficient maintenance and antiquated equipment due to a lack of US government funding and investment in infrastructure may be at fault for the electrical short.

The Eastern range radar must function perfectly in order to destroy any rocket in a split second in the event it abruptly veers off course towards the nearby populated areas along the Florida Space Coast.

The Atlas V rocket was rolled out earlier today to Space Launch Complex 41 in preparation for Thursday’s NROL-67 launch. The weather forecast shows a 90 percent chance of favorable weather conditions for launch.

The Dragon spacecraft, filled with about 4,600 lbs of cargo bound for the space station, is mated with Falcon 9.  Credit: SpaceX
The Dragon spacecraft, filled with about 4,600 lbs of cargo bound for the space station, is mated with Falcon 9. Credit: SpaceX

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Atlas V NROL 67, 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, NY on April 12/13.

Ken Kremer

Crucial Radar Outage Scrubs US National Security and SpaceX Launches for Several Weeks from Cape Canaveral

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL – The sudden and unexpected outage of a crucial tracking radar that is mandatory to insure public safety, has forced the scrub of a pair of launches planned for this week from Cape Canaveral, FL, that are vital to US National Security, United Launch Alliance, SpaceX and NASA.

The tracking radar is an absolutely essential asset for the Eastern Range that oversees all launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the Kennedy Space Center on the Florida Space Coast.

The pair of liftoffs for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and SpaceX/NASA had been slated just days apart on March 25 and March 30.

Urgent repairs are in progress.

Both launches have now been postponed for a minimum of 3 weeks, according to a statement I received from the 45th Space Wing of the US Air Force that controls the critical launch control systems, communications, computers and radar elements.

An Atlas V rocket carrying the super secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office and a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon cargo freightor bound for the International Space Station (ISS) were both in the midst of the final stages of intensive pre-launch processing activities this week.

The Eastern range radar was apparently knocked out by a fire on March 24, a short time after the early morning rollout of the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket to the launch pad at Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral.

“An investigation revealed a tracking radar experienced an electrical short, overheating the unit and rendering it inoperable,” according to today’s explanatory statement from the USAF 45th Space Wing.

“The outage resulted in an inability to meet minimum public safety requirements needed for flight, so the launch was postponed.”

A SpaceX spokesperson likewise confirmed to me that their launch was also on hold.

Artwork for Super Secret NROL-67 payload launching on Atlas V rocket. Credit: NRO/ULA
Artwork for Super Secret NROL-67 payload launching on Atlas V rocket. Credit: NRO/ULA

A fully functional tracking radar is an absolute requirement to ensure the success and safety of any launch.

The range radar must also be functioning perfectly in order to destroy the rocket in a split second in the event it veers off course to the nearby heavily populated areas along the Space Coast.

Myself and other space journalists had been working at Pad 41 on March 24 and setting up our remote cameras to capture spectacular up close views of the blastoff that had then been scheduled for March 25.

Atlas V rocket and Super Secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload following rollout to Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, on March 24, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Atlas V rocket and Super Secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload following rollout to Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, on March 24, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Insufficient maintenance and antiquated equipment due to a lack of US government funding and investment in infrastructure may be implicated.

The range outage for such an extended period of time reveals a clear vulnerability in US National Security planning.

The Air Force is also looking into the feasibility of reviving an inactive radar as a short term quick fix.

But in order to use the retired backup system, it will also have to re-validated to ensure utility and that all launch control and public safety requirements are fully met.

Simultaneously, the engineering team is recalculating launch trajectories and range requirements.

Such a revalidation process will also require an unknown period of time.

The full impact of putting these two launches on hold for the NRO and SpaceX is not known at this time.

An upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with Dragon cargo capsule bound for the ISS is slated to launch on March 16, 2014 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL.   File photo.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
An upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with Dragon cargo capsule bound for the ISS is slated to launch on March 16, 2014 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. File photo. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Furthermore, the USAF will need to determine the downstream scheduling impact on the very busy manifest of all of the remaining launches throughout 2014 – averaging more than one per month.

Neither the NRO nor NASA and SpaceX have announced firm new launch dates.

The earliest possible Atlas V launch date appears to be sometime in mid-April, but that assessment can change on a dime.

In the meantime, personnel from the 45th Space Wing will continue to work diligently to repair the range radar equipment as quickly as possible.

ULA engineers also rolled the Atlas V rocket back to its processing hanger until a new launch target date is set.

SpaceX likewise awaits a target launch date for the Dragon CRS-3 cargo mission packed with some 5000 pounds of science experiments and supplies for the six man station crew.

It seems likely that the next Orbital Sciences Antares/Cygnus launch to the ISS will also have to be postponed since Dragon and Cygnus berth at the same station port.

Space journalists and photographers pose at Launch Pad 41 during camera setup with the Atlas V rocket slated to loft super secret NROL-67 spy satellite to orbit. Ken Kremer/Universe Today at right.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Space journalists and photographers pose at Launch Pad 41 during camera setup with the Atlas V rocket slated to loft super secret NROL-67 spy satellite to orbit; Ben Cooper, Don Hludiak, Mike Howard, Mike Deep, Matthew Travis, Hap Griffin, Jeff Seibert, Alan Walters, Julian Leek, Ken Kremer/Universe Today at right. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Atlas V NROL 67, 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, NY on April 12/13 and at Washington Crossing State Park, NJ on April 6. Also at the Quality Inn Kennedy Space Center, Titusville, FL, March 29.

Ken Kremer

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