Two exciting moments in spaceflight today! First off, the much-anticipated return to flight for Antares, launching from Wallops Island in Virginia and delivering the Cygnus “SS Alan Poindexter” on the OA-5 mission to the International Space Station. Alan Poindexter has since deployed its circular solar arrays, a lightweight design making its third flight on this mission, and is making its way towards the ISS. Capture and berthing is expected Sunday. Antares had a spectacular failure on its last flight, using 1960s legacy NK-33 engines. The new Antares has brand new RD-181 engines from NPO Energomash in Russia on its first stage; the first stage tankage and plumbing, meanwhile, are still built by the Ukrainian company Yuzhnoye, while the upper stage is a Castor-30 solid fuel rocket built in house by Orbital ATK.
Cygnus OA-5 is named for Alan Poindexter. Orbital has established a tradition of naming their cargo vessels for deceased astronauts. Poindexter was an accomplished naval aviator and test pilot, who after joining the astronaut corps went on to make two missions into space aboard the Space Shuttle. Upon retiring from the astronaut corps, he returned to the Navy as an educator. However, he tragically died just two years later at the age of 50 in a boating accident.
Meanwhile, millions of miles away, the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter has released the Schiaparelli lander. This is ESA’s first attempt to land on the red planet. (Beagle 2, which piggybacked on Mars Express, was a purely British enterprise.) The Trace Gas Orbiter then performed a Mars avoidance maneuver; at the time of release, it was on a Mars collision course, which was necessary in order for the lander to end up on the right trajectory. TGO will enter Mars orbit in two days, while Schiaparelli will be entering the atmosphere the same day — there will be some very tense controllers in Darmstadt for sure. ExoMars is a European-Russian joint program that actually spans two missions — this one, launched by the Russians in exchange for carrying some Russian instruments originally designed for the Phobos-Grunt mission, and a second one in 2018 that will feature a rover. It’s an ambitious move in Europe’s planetary program; cross your fingers for them!