Cygnus Spacecraft Launches to ISS with 3D Printer, Vehicle Fire Experiment in Tow

The Orbital ATK Cygnus berthing with the ISS

The Orbital ATK Cygnus berthing with the ISS (Credit: NASA)

Kennedy Space Center, FL—NASA resupply contractor Orbital ATK has successfully launched their Cygnus spacecraft aboard an Atlas V rocket late Tuesday night and will deliver cargo to the International Space Station. The Cygnus, named in honor of fallen shuttle astronaut Col. Rick Husband, is packed with over 7,400 lbs of supplies and science payloads that include a 3D printing machine and an experiment that will study the behavior of fire in microgravity.

This mission, OA-6, is the fifth resupply service mission for Orbital ATK under their Commercial Resupply Services contract with NASA to eventually deliver over 63,000 lbs of cargo to the crew of the orbiting laboratory over the course of 10 missions. It’s also the second Cygnus mission to use launch provider United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket and the second (and possibly last) time the Cygnus has launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Orbital ATK’s own ride, the Antares rocket, has been grounded since it exploded during liftoff in late 2014 and is currently being re-engined for a return to flight (and resupply missions) this summer from its launch pad at the NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

The ULA Atlas V rocket and Cygnus spacecraft on launch pad 41 at Cape Canaveral

The ULA Atlas V rocket and Cygnus spacecraft on launch pad 41 at Cape Canaveral (Photo: Robin Seemangal)

Following liftoff from Launch Complex 41, the Atlas V rocket took about 21 minutes to bring the Cygnus to a preliminary orbit where its solar arrays were deployed and the spacecraft began the first in a series of choreographed engine firings that will help it reach the space station.

The Cygnus is expected to arrive at its destination early Saturday morning where crew members Tim Kopra and Tim Peake will use the ISS’s robotic arm to capture the spacecraft and berth it with the Earth-facing port on the Unity module. “It was a great team effort,” said former astronaut and current president of Orbital ATK space systems, Frank Culbertson. “It allows us to deliver three and a half tons of cargo to the International Space Station so they can continue their important research, keep the crew on board fed, clothed and healthy.”

The Cygnus spacecraft being prepared for the OA-6 mission

The Cygnus spacecraft being prepared for the OA-6 mission (Photo: Robin Seemangal)

Along with supplies, everyday necessities and replacement parts, the crew will be accepting delivery of over 1,700 lbs of scientific instruments and materials that will support a significant amount of the research investigations to occur during Expeditions 47 and 48.

One of these payloads will enable the study of fire on a spacecraft which has not been attempted on a manned vehicle due to the high risks associated with combustion. The experiment will occur in about two months and will utilize the Cygnus spacecraft as it departs the International Space Station. Before burning up in the atmosphere, instruments on board the spacecraft will help measure flame growth and how much oxygen was burned during the test.

“The experiment is called Spacecraft Fire Experiment or ‘Saffire’ and the purpose of it is to look at the spread and growth of a large-scale fire in long-duration microgravity,” said experiment co-investigator Dr. Gary Ruff to the Observer. “The sample is about 4/10 of a meter wide by a meter long and it’s going to be the biggest piece of material that we’ve ever burned in space and what we’re trying to understand is; how rapidly that fire can grow and whether the fire reaches a steady size or continues to grow up the sample like it would if you had a drapery fire on Earth.”

A permanent Additive Manufacturing Facility or ‘3D printer’ is also among the science cargo headed to the ISS and is part of the space program’s next phase of fabricating hardware out of raw material in a microgravity environment. The technology, initially developed by Made in Space under a small business innovative research grant from NASA, will assist crew members in creating tools and replacing parts for use both inside the laboratory and outside in the vacuum of space. Made in Space currently has a 3D printer aboard the ISS but it’s successor that is going up with the OA-6 mission will be larger, more modular and easily adaptable to new printing material.

The Made in Space Additive Manufacturing Facility

The Made in Space Additive Manufacturing Facility (Credit: NASA)

“The first step in our whole process was to do a trade study in what was the easiest and fastest way to start manufacturing in space. Once you build a cornerstone then you can go on from there,” said Made In Space Chief Engineer Michael Snyder to the Observer. “The most important thing is to start testing to see what works, see how it works, and seeing the best operational  scenarios you can set up and iterate from there. That is what led to the first printer we launched with NASA in 2014. We operated that very successfully. This next generation printer builds upon that knowledge base and it’s really just progressing to where we want to be—which is building  entire spacecraft in space.”

NASA’s next contracted resupply mission to the International Space Station is scheduled for April 8th, 2016 and will see the return to flight of the Dragon cargo spacecraft after it was destroyed during SpaceX’s last attempted cargo run last summer.

Robin Seemangal focuses on NASA and advocacy for space exploration. He was born and raised in Brooklyn, where he currently resides. Find him on Instagram for more space-related content: @not_gatsby.

Cygnus Spacecraft Launches to ISS with 3D Printer, Vehicle Fire Experiment in Tow