The ISS is a busy place! They’ve had two arrivals in the past few days. First off, Soyuz MS-02 arrived following a two-day chase. It docked to the Poisk module located at the zenith port of Zvezda’s forward compartment. This lovely time-lapse has the perfect musical score to go along:
And now, the Cygnus OA-5 mission, with the spacecraft “SS Alan Poindexter”, has arrived at the ISS. Crews on board captured the spacecraft with the SSRMS; ground controllers later took over and completed the berthing remotely while the crew slept, mating the spacecraft to the nadir port of the Unity node of the ISS.
Orbital ATK names each of their cargo vehicles, and the tradition they’ve chosen is to name each for a deceased astronaut. Alan Poindexter, this spacecraft’s namesake, joined the astronaut corps in 1998, later flying on two missions, STS-122 and STS-131. The latter was the longest mission for the Space Shuttle Discovery, at 15 days 2 hours, 47 min, 11 seconds. Poindexter retired from NASA in 2010, one of many realizing they would never get another chance to fly into space. He tragically passed away at the age of 50 in 2012 in a personal watercraft accident. But thanks to Orbital ATK, his name at least can fly in space one more time.
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!
First off, India’s PSLV made another successful flight, racking up its quota of successful low-cost launches to Earth orbit! In fact, it set a domestic record, carrying 20 satellites to orbit on this mission, easily a record for India, for customers in Indonesia, Canada, Germany, and the United States, including a Google payload.
Secondly, the Cygnus spacecraft from Orbital Sciences has completed its mission at the ISS and its post-ISS mission to conduct a fire experiment called SAFIRE. There will be more SAFIRE tests on future Cygnus flights, to better understand how fire propagates (or doesn’t) in weightlessness at scales not possible inside of crewed spacecraft for safety reasons.
Here’s raw video of the actual flames observed inside of Cygnus’ SAFIRE experiment module:
Then, yesterday, Cygnus fired its engines one last time to auger itself in over the South Pacific, carrying one last experiment: REBR, a Re-Entry Breakup Recorder, a device that has been flown on a few other returning disposable spacecraft such as ATV and HTV, to better understand how the breakup happens during reentry, with an eye to improving safety for the vehicles we want to actually survive the process. Waste not, want not. 😉
This particular Cygnus was named the SS Rick Husband, in honor of the late commander of STS-107, the final flight of Columbia.
The second (and possibly final, pending the Antares return to flight) launch of Cygnus aboard an Atlas V was successful yesterday evening, and Cygnus has arrived at the International Space Station. Like all Cygnus, this one was named for a deceased astronaut, in this case Rick Husband. During his career, Husband made two flights, the first one being as pilot aboard STS-96, an ISS resupply mission aboard Discovery, and the other being as commander aboard STS-107, the tragic final flight of Columbia, which broke up during its return on February 1, 2003.
As with the last flight, the greater capacity of Atlas V allowed them to stretch the Cygnus into the “Enhanced Cygnus” design. (The redesigned Antares 200 will also be able to lift the Enhanced Cygnus.) This mission is carrying 3,513 kg of payload: 1,139 kg of crew supplies (clothing, food, etc., including items for the Russian crewmembers; both American and Russian cargo providers share duties routinely), 1,108 kg of ISS gear (fresh filters, toilet parts, circuitboards, etc.), 777 kg of scientific experiments, 98 kg of computer gear, and 157 kg of US spacesuit parts. Additionally, Cygnus is carrying a unique experiment called Saffire-1 which will not be left on the station. It’s an experiment which will deliberately start a fire inside the Cygnus’ pressurized module and see how it behaves and how well various materials stand up to it. The experiment will be entirely autonomous and will only occur after the spacecraft had departed the station and is ready to deorbit.
Confirmation came in today: Akatsuki, the plucky little probe that wouldn’t give up, is definitely orbiting the second planet from the Sun! It’s in a much higher orbit than it was originally designed for, but due to better-than-expected performance from the overtaxed RCS engines, it’s a better orbit than they had hoped for after the salvage maneuver. They will be able to nudge it down into a lower orbit over time, and hopefully even get much of the originally planned science out of the mission. Here’s the first image it has sent back from Venus orbit:
Also, while we’re on the subject of successful things in space, Cygnus “SS Deke Slayton II” arrived at the ISS today and has been berthed at the nadir port of the Unity node. Deke Slayton II will remain at the ISS through January.
Atlas V performed flawlessly earlier today to place Cygnus “Deke Slayton II” into orbit. (“Deke Slayton I” was the vehicle lost in the Antares launch explosion.) The 16,517 pound vehicle was the heaviest payload ever lifted by Atlas V — yet it only required the lightest configuration of the rocket. This counter-intuitive detail is because Cygnus only must climb as high as the ISS; most of Atlas’ customers are launched to much higher orbits, requiring much more energy. Cygnus thus breaks the record previously held by the MUOS military commsats, which are over 15,000 lbs but are lifted by the 551 configuration Atlas V (the largest configuration yet flown — 5 meter payload fairing and 5 strap-on boosters) to place them into geosynchronous transfer orbit, so require much more energy than this launch required.
The uncooperative Florida weather continues. Cygnus’ flight aboard Atlas V is now no earlier than 4:44:56 p.m. EST (21:44:56 GMT) on Sunday. There will still be only a 40% chance of favorable conditions. If they must delay to Monday, the forecast improves to a 70% chance. However, they would likely have to loiter on orbit for a docking opportunity if they have to wait that long.