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How Do Cargo Spacecraft Work?

How Do Cargo Spacecraft Work?


Today is the day that our commercial partner, Orbital ATK, has set for the launch of its fourth contracted mission to the International Space Station. The Cygnus spacecraft will carry more than 7,000 pounds of science and research, crew supplies and vehicle hardware to the orbital laboratory.

How Does it Launch?


This mission is the first Cygnus mission to utilize NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Force base in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The cargo will be launched inside the Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft using a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. 

But how does it get there? Is there someone on the ground controlling and directing it to the space station? Surprisingly, no. After launch, the Cygnus spacecraft is automated until it gets near the station. At that point, the robotic controllers use the CanadArm2 to reach out and grapple it (grab), and then berth (connect) it to the station.

What’s Inside?


In order to keep the thousands of pounds of supplies, science and hardware from moving during launch and in flight, the cargo is packed in bags and strapped to the walls.

The new experiments arriving to the space station will challenge and inspire future scientists and explorers. A few of the highlights are:

  • The Packed Bed Reactor Experiment (PBRE) – This experiment (image below) will study the behavior of gases and liquids when they flow simultaneously through a column filled with fixed porous media. The findings from this will be of interest in many chemical and biological processing systems as well as many geophysical applications.
  • BASS-M (Burning and Suppression of Solids – Milliken) – This experiment (image below) will evaluate flame retardant and/or resistant textiles as a mode of personal protection from fire-related hazards. Studying this in microgravity will aid in better designs for future textiles and benefit those who wear flame retardant and/or resistant protective apparel such as military personnel and civilian workers in the electrical and energy industries. 
  • Space Automated Bioproduct Lab (SABL) – This equipment is a single locker-sized facility (image below) that will enable a wide variety of fundamental, applied and commercial life sciences research. It will also benefit K-16 education-based investigations aboard the space station. Research will be supported on microorganisms (bacteria, yeast, algae, fungi, viruses, etc.), animal cells and tissues and small plant and animal organisms.
  • Nodes SatellitesThese satellites (image below) will be deployed from the space station to demonstrate new network capabilities critical to the operation of swarms of spacecraft. They will show the ability of multi-spacecraft swarms to receive and distribute ground commands, exchange information periodically and more. 
  • Holiday Surprises – With the upcoming holidays the crew’s family has the opportunity to send Christmas gifts to their family members on the International Space Station. 

What About After?

The spacecraft will spend more than a month attached to the space station before it’s detached for re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere in January 2016, disposing of about 3,000 pounds of trash. It will disintegrate while entering the atmosphere. 


Want to Watch Launch?

Launch coverage begins at 4:30 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 3 on NASA Television. Cygnus is set to lift off on the Atlas V at 5:55 p.m., the beginning of a 30-minute launch window, from Space Launch Complex 41.

In addition to launch coverage, a post-launch briefing will be held approximately two hours after launch. All briefings will air live on NASA TV. 

UPDATE: Due to poor weather conditions, today’s launch has been scrubbed and moved to tomorrow at 5:33 p.m. EST. The forecast for tomorrow calls for a 30% chance of acceptable conditions at launch time. Continuous countdown coverage will be available on NASA Television starting at 4:30 p.m.


UPDATE 2: The uncrewed Cygnus cargo ship launched at 4:44 p.m. EST on Sunday, Dec. 6 on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida to begin its three-day journey to the orbiting laboratory.

How Do Cargo Spacecraft Work?

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