Cygnus Supply Craft Launches to ISS with Large-Scale Fire Experiment Inside

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL — Orbital ATK’s latest Cygnus OA-6 resupply vehicle, the SS Rick Husband, launched from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) Tuesday night at 11:05pm ET, for the second time aboard United Launch Alliance's (ULA) Atlas V 401 rocket. An enhanced version of ULA's previous Cygnus vehicles, the SS Rick Husband can carry 25% more cargo than its predecessors - the spacecraft is launching with 3,518 kg of critical crew supplies, equipment, and scientific experiments about the weight of a small bus -  and features upgraded solar arrays and computer systems.

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Cygnus OA-6, SS Rick Husband, sits in the Payload Hazardous Service Facility (PHSF) prior to encapsulation.

Cygnus OA-6, SS Rick Husband, sits in the Payload Hazardous Service Facility (PHSF) prior to encapsulation.

Encapsulated in its payload fairing March 9, Cygnus was then transported to ULA's Vertical Integration Facility where it was mounted atop the rocket. Following a myriad of safety inspections over the following days, the Atlas V was rolled out to the launchpad Monday morning.

The Atlas V sits at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Click to enlarge. Photo Credit: Dinner

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Following its successful launch, Cygnus separated from the Centaur second stage rocket 21 minutes after liftoff. The SS Rick Husband will spend three days in orbit before capture by the ISS’s robotic arm docks it to the Unity module’s Earth-facing port. A feeling likely shared by the station’s six current inhabitants, Orbital ATK's Senior Director of Mission Cargo Operations in Dulles, VA, and former shuttle and station astronaut Dan Tani, described the arrival of supply craft “like Christmas,” saying, “It’s always fun to watch another vehicle approach and then it’s like opening a box of goodies.” Carrying more cargo than any of the five previous Cygnus missions, the SS Rick Husband is sure to not disappoint. 

In addition to the food and supplies necessary to sustain the station’s crew, the Cygnus OA-6 is also carrying a new 3D printer to the ISS, more than two dozen nanosatellites, and a number of science experiments:


Following its loss aboard the Cygnus Orb-3 resupply craft after the Antares launch failure in October 2014, a new Meteor Composition Determination (Meteor) instrument will be able to track and analyze from space the chemical composition of meteors entering Earth’s atmosphere. For the first time, Meteor will provide space-based observations and analysis of meteors as they burn up during their decent. These types of experiments will help further our understanding of how planets develop, and may allow future predictions for meteors currently undetectable.


In an effort to advance NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), which aims to redirect a small asteroid into lunar orbit in the mid-2020s, Strata-I will study the properties and behaviors of regolith — impact-shattered, lifeless soil found on small spacial bodies that lack atmosphere. Observing how regolith behaves in microgravity will help NASA scientists determine the feasibility of anchoring a spacecraft on such a surface, and will offer insight into how it would interact with the materials used in construction of spacecraft and spacesuits.


Under development for over a decade at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Gecko Gripper is a testing mechanism designed to stick to surfaces in space in the same way the hairs on a gecko’s feet allow it to stick to surfaces on Earth. With the ability to switch its adhesive capabilities on and off, the Gecko Gripper headed to the station will be affixed to an external location for up to 1 year. Applied to the feet of NASA’s future Limbed Excursion Mechanical Utility Robot (LEMUR), Gecko Gripper technology would allow LEMUR, or robots like it, to traverse the outside of the space station with ease; performing inspections and maintenance without the necessity of an EVA. 

Artist's concept of LEMUR inspecting installations on the ISS. The robot would stick to the outside using a gecko-inspired gripping system. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Artist's concept of LEMUR inspecting installations on the ISS. The robot would stick to the outside using a gecko-inspired gripping system. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


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Due to obvious safety concerns, combustion experiments aboard the ISS have been limited and small in scale. Cygnus OA-6, which is scheduled to undock after 55 days, will be remotely controlled during the Spacecraft Fire Experiment-I (Saffire). The experiment will be activated only after the spacecraft is a safe distance away from the station and its crew. Contained within a three-by-five foot module within the cargo hold, the first of three planned Saffire experiments will asses the largest man-made fire ever in space. Remaining in orbit for ten days before its destructive atmospheric reentry above the Pacific Ocean, Cygnus will transmit around 10gb of video footage of the fire for study. NASA’s Advanced Exploration System Director, Jason Crusan, explains, “NASA’s objective is to reduce the risk of long-duration exploration missions, and a spacecraft fire is one of the biggest concerns for NASA and the international space exploration community.”

Inside the Cygnus cargo bay. Photo credit: NASA

Dan Tani in front of Cygnus in the PHSF

Dan Tani in front of Cygnus in the PHSF

Once we can figure out…the big factors involved in flame propagation, combustion, and those kinds of things, we can better design high tech modules, smoke detectors, and things that will help prevent damage and ultimately loss of life in a zero-g environment.
— Dan Tani

The two subsequent Saffire experiments will be conducted aboard Cygnus cargo vehicles during future scheduled missions. Saffire-II will asses oxygen flammability limits on a smaller scale, and Saffire-III will engage in a second large-scale combustion event similar to Saffire-I. 


SS Rick Husband

Continuing Orbital ATK’s tradition of naming its resupply spacecraft after fallen astronauts, the SS Rick Husband honors the commander of STS-107; lost with the rest of Space Shuttle Columbia’s crew February 1, 2003. Tani revealed the new Cygnus designation at a media event earlier this month. 

Rick was a very accomplished astronaut, a devoted husband and father, and a wonderful guy whose faith was extremely important to him.
— Dan Tani

Rick Husband; Photo credit: NASA

A deep connection to Orbital ATK, under the commander of STS-96, Kent Brominger — Vice President of Orbital ATK in Utah — Husband was the first pilot to dock a space shuttle to the station, and logged a total of 26 days, 3 hours, and 33 minutes in space. Explaining his own personal connection to Husband, Tani stated the choice was “particularly meaningful to me because I knew Rick and got to fly jets with him.” 

The fifth mission for Orbital ATK under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS-1) contract, the SS Rick Husband will be one of five spacecraft docked to the station, and joins a list of relatively fast-paced missions undertaken by the aerospace and defense company over the last three years. “Bang, bang, bang!” Tani exclaimed when describing the fast turn around of Orbital ATK vehicles; a tempo unlikely to slow down, having been awarded NASA’s CRS-2 contract in January. The new contract guarantees the company a minimum of six additional supply missions to the station from 2019 through 2024.