At 11.05 p.m. EDT today (3.05 a.m. GMT tomorrow), a new spacecraft is set to launch to the International Space Station (ISS) with a host of new science on board.
The Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft is scheduled to lift off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, the fifth planned cargo flight for the Cygnus vehicle (the third, on October 28, 2014, exploded shortly after liftoff). The flight will be aboard an Atlas V rocket, with Orbital’s Antares fleet still grounded while investigations into the explosion continue.
The launch itself will be yet another feather in the cap for NASA’s successful private spaceflight program, but it’s what Cygnus is carrying that's really of interest. This is the largest science shipment ever made by a Cygnus vehicle, with 3.2 tonnes (3.5 tons) of cargo on board.
"It's like Christmas when a supply craft arrives," said Orbital ATK's Dan Tani, senior director of mission cargo and operations, in a statement. "It's always fun to watch another vehicle approach and then it’s like opening a box of goodies and finding some stuff you've been wanting and some surprises you didn't know about."
The launch will be streamed live on NASA TV, above
Included is a new 3D printer from Made In Space called the Additive Manufacturing Facility, which is an upgraded version of a printer already on the station. NASA will use the printer to create parts on the station with a variety of materials, while Made In Space also has plans for private companies on the ground to use it to print research equipment on the ISS, rather than sending it on a launch.
Another interesting piece of equipment being launched on this mission is Saffire. When Cygnus undocks from the ISS following its mission, it is usually sent to burn up in the atmosphere, as it lacks the ability to return to the ground like SpaceX’s Dragon. However, before that happens on this mission, Saffire will start a fire in a small box inside the unmanned Cygnus to see how fire behaves in space. This could be crucial in working out how to cope with potential fires on long-duration missions, such as to Mars.
This is the first of three Saffire missions planned for Cygnus spacecraft. And it will be bigger than any such experiment done before, with a material 1 meter long (3 feet long) and 0.4 meters wide (1 foot) set ablaze. Instruments on board will monitor the fire, expected to last six minutes, which will be performed when Cygnus is safely away from the station four hours after undocking. (Check out a video of how it will work here.)
Shown is the Atlas V rocket ahead of the launch. NASA TV
Elsewhere we’ve got Meteor, an instrument that will perform the first scientific observations of meteors entering Earth’s atmosphere from space. High-resolution video and images will allow scientists on the ground to study the physical and chemical properties of meteoroid dust, helping us understand the interaction of meteors with Earth’s atmosphere. It could also help us monitor meteors that we can’t track from the ground.
But wait, there’s more. Cygnus also carries the Gecko Gripper, a new type of adhesive based on the hairs of geckos that the astronauts on board the ISS will test out, while two dozen small nanosatellites will also be released in space during the mission. Strata-1, meanwhile, will investigate how soil from small celestial bodies, such as asteroids, behaves in microgravity.
So, phew. That’s a lot of science. And there’s plenty more, not only on board Cygnus, but already on the station, and also on the upcoming Russian Progress and SpaceX Dragon missions. NASA is keen to utilize the ISS as much as possible, which is why they are hoping to raise the crew number from six to seven, to increase the amount of research like this that can be done