After two days of weather-related delays, a Northrop Grumman Antares 230 rocket climbed into orbit after a spectacular pre-dawn launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia at 4:01 a.m. EST (0901 GMT), on Saturday (Nov 17).
Propelled by a whopping 864,000 pounds of thrust from the Russian-built RD-181 engines, the rocket soared into the pre-dawn sky over Virginia’s Eastern Shore, veering southeast over the Atlantic to stay on course for its intended destination.
Perched atop the 139-foot launcher was a Cygnus spacecraft – also developed and owned by Northrop Grumman – loaded with 7,400 pounds worth of research hardware and supplies for the International Space Station (ISS).
Included in the provisions are some ice cream and fresh fruits for the three-member Expedition 57 team currently manning the orbital laboratory; they are NASA astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor, European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Alexander Gerst and Russian cosmonaut Sergey Prokopyev.
LIFTOFF! @northropgrumman’s #Antares rocket just launched from @NASA_Wallops in Virginia. Heading to @Space_Station, the #Cygnus cargo vehicle will deliver about 7,400 pounds of @ISS_Research and cargo. Watch as it continues its journey into space: https://t.co/mzKW5uDsTi pic.twitter.com/vpUXFYvK6S
— NASA (@NASA) November 17, 2018
As the first-stage of the Antares shut down and separated three and a half minutes into the launch, the upper-stage Castor 30XL rocket motor took over the next stage of the supply mission, accelerating Cygnus towards the intended point of the second separation.
Five and a half minutes later, the Antares upper-stage released the supply ship into a preliminary orbit for its two-day onward journey to the ISS.
“Not only was it a beautiful launch this morning, it put Cygnus exactly where we wanted it in orbit,” said Frank DeMauro, Northrop Grumman vice president of advanced programs.
“The spacecraft, after separation, we were able to communicate (with it) extremely quickly and start conditioning. We initialized the guidance system and the propulsion system. That all checked out really well,” DeMauro added.
If all goes according to plan, the un-manned Cygnus should make contact with the space station early Monday morning, at around 5:20 a.m. EST (1020 GMT).
Auñón-Chancellor and Gerst will be eagerly waiting to deploy the space station’s robotic arm to grab the goodies-laden Cygnus – nothing less than a treasure ship for the resident astronauts.
The Cygnus launch was the second ISS supply mission in a matter of a day, following the launch of Russia’s Progress 71 space vehicle aboard a Soyuz-FG rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Saturday (Nov 17) at 12:14 a.m. local time (1:14 p.m. EST, 1814 GMT on Nov. 16).
Progress 71 has been cruising with its three-ton cargo of food, fuel, and other essential supplies for more than forty hours now, and is expected to dock at the Russian section of the space station at around 2:30 p.m. EST (1930 GMT) on Sunday (Nov 18).
Russia's Progress cargo craft blasted off on its way to the station today at 1:14pm ET. It will arrive at the orbital lab Sunday with about 6,000 pounds supplies and goodies for the crew. https://t.co/dtUGpS6U3G pic.twitter.com/CxuByrSI7J
— Intl. Space Station (@Space_Station) November 16, 2018
“While we were waiting on the weather out here at Wallops, we had an awesome Progress launch out of Baikonur, Kazakhstan on Friday,” said Joel Montalbano, deputy space station program manager at NASA
“We’re looking forward to both vehicles being attached to the International Space Station and the crew working on them getting the science, getting the research out, getting all the equipment that we’ve bought up on these vehicles, and continuing the great work we do on the International Space Station,” Montalbano added.
Cygnus will remain berthed at the orbiting lab until mid-February 2019, by which time it will have offloaded its cargo and taken on waste, before returning back to the Earth’s atmosphere for its intended burn up.
However, before the cargo hauler meets its fiery end, it will deploy two CubeSats (MYSat 1 and CHEFSat 2) at a higher orbit, some 500 kilometers (300 miles) above Earth, as well as a NASA-sponsored CubeSat called Kicksat 2 at a lower orbit roughly 325 kilometers (200 miles) above the planet.
Built by Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi, with support from Northrop Grumman and the UAE’s Al Yah Satellite Communications Company, MYSat 1 is a 1U CubeSat, roughly the size of a Rubik’s cube, with an onboard camera and lithion-ion coil cell battery.
The U.S. Naval Research Lab’s shoebox-sized CHEFSat 2 – a replica of the CubeSat launched in Nov last year, also aboard a Cygnus spaceship – “will test commercial off-the-shelf technologies to evaluate their performance in space, focusing on new radio communications capabilities,” reports Spaceflight Now.
The lower orbit KickSat 2 is equipped with 100 “sprites” that are, basically, 1,4-inch circuit boards with integrated power, computing, sensing and communication equipment.
KickSat 2 is designed to deploy the tiny sprites at a relatively low orbit to enable re-entry within a few weeks, rather than deploying them at a higher orbit where they are likely to become space debris and a threat to other satellites.
KickSat 2 is a continuation of the unsuccessful KickSat mission in 2014 when it failed to deploy the sprites in orbit.
The Cygnus space cargo hauler was Christened S.S. John Young, in honor of NASA astronaut John Watts Young who passed away on January 5 this year.
The veteran astronaut had the distinction of flying six space missions, including Gemini 3, Gemini 10, Apollo 10, Apollo 16, STS-1 and STS-9, in his 42 years of active service at NASA – a record in itself.
He also holds the record of being the only person to have piloted and commandeered four classes of spacecraft, including Gemini, the Apollo Command/Service Module, the Apollo Lunar Module, and the Space Shuttle.
He was one of just three people to have flown to the Moon on two occasions, in addition to becoming the first person to fly solo around the natural satellite.
He also drove the Lunar Roving Vehicle on the Moon’s surface during Apollo 16.