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Cygnus Cargo Craft: What’s Onboard?

Cygnus Cargo Craft: What’s Onboard?


New experiments are scheduled to arrive to the International Space Station with the launch of Orbital ATK’s Cygnus cargo spacecraft on Tuesday. These science payloads will study fires, meteors, regolith, adhesion and 3-D printing in microgravity.

Take a look at the experiments:



What is it? What happens when you set a fire in space? The Spacecraft Fire Experiment-I (Saffire-I) will find out!

How does it work? This experiment will intentionally light a large-scale fire inside an empty Cygnus resupply vehicle after it leaves the space station and before it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere.

Why is it important? The Saffire-I investigation provides a new way to study a realistic fire on an exploration vehicle, which has not been possible in the past because the risks for performing studies on manned spacecraft are too high. Instruments on the returning Cygnus will measure flame growth, oxygen use and more.



What is it? A less heated investigation, Meteor Composition Determination (Meteor) will enable the first space-based observations of meteors entering Earth’s atmosphere from space. Meteors are somewhat rare and are difficult to monitor from the ground because of Earth’s atmosphere.

How does it work? This investigation uses high-resolution video and image analysis of the atmosphere to acquire the physical and chemical properties of the meteoroid dust, such as size, density and chemical composition.

Why is it important? Studying the elemental composition of meteors adds to our understanding of how the planets developed, and continuous measurement of meteor interactions with Earth’s atmosphere could spot previously unforeseen meteors.



What is it? A more “grounded” investigation will study the properties and behavior of regolith, the impact-shatterd “soil” found on asteroids, comets, the moon and other airless worlds.

How does it work? The Strata-1 experimental facility exposes a series of regolith simulants, including pulverized meteorite material, glass beads, and regolith simulants composed of terrestrial materials and stored in multiple transparent tubes, to prolonged microgravity on the space station. Scientists will monitor changes in regolith layers and layering, size sorting and particle migration via video images and close examination after return of the samples to Earth.

Why is it important? The Strata-1 investigation could give us new answers about how regolith behaves and moves in microgravity, how easy or difficult it is to anchor a spacecraft in regolith, how it interacts with spacecraft and spacesuit materials and other important properties.

Gecko Gripper


What is it? From grounded to gripping, another investigation launching takes inspiration from small lizards. Geckos have specialized hairs on their feed called setae that let them stick to vertical surfaces without falling, and their stickiness doesn’t wear off after repeated use. The Gecko Gripper investigation tests a gecko-adhesive gripping device that can stick on command in the harsh environment of space.

How does it work? The gripping device is a material with synthetic hairs much like setae that are much thinner than a human hair. When a force is applied to make the tiny hairs bend, the positively charged part of a molecule within a slight electrical field attracts the negatively charged part of its neighbor resulting in “stickiness.” Once adhered, the gripper can bear loads up to 20 pounds. The gripper can remain in place indefinitely and can also be easily removed and reused.

Why is it important? Gecko Grippers have many applications on current and future space missions, including acting as mounting devices for payloads, instruction manuals and many other small items within the space station. In addition, this technology enables a new type of robotic inspection system that could prove vital for spacecraft safety and repair.

Additive Manufacturing Facility


What is it? From adhesion to additive, the new Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF) will also launch on the flight. Additive manufacturing (3D printing) is the process of building a part layer-by-layer, with an efficient use of the material.

How does it work? The AMF uses this technology to enable the production of components on the space station for both NASA and commercial objectives.

Why is it important? Parts, entire experiments and tools can be created on demand with this technology. The ability to manufacture on the orbiting laboratory enables on-demand repair and production capability, as well as essential research for manufacturing on long-term missions.

These sticky, stony and sizzling investigations are just a sampling of the wide range of science conducted on the orbiting laboratory that benefits future spaceflight and provides Earth-based benefits as well.

Watch the Launch!

You can watch the launch of Orbital ATK’s Cygnus spacecraft online. Stream live coverage starting at 10 p.m. EDT on March 22. Launch is scheduled for 11:05 p.m., which is the start of a 30-minute launch window. 

Watch online: 

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