The Cygnus Spacecraft "S.S. Kalpana Chawla" is on its way to the International Space Station after a successful launch Friday evening from Wallops Flight Facility.
At 9:16pm local time on October 2nd, the Antares 230+ rocket lifted off from the Virginia coast. This Northrop Grumman medium lift vehicle carried 7,829 lbs of cargo into orbit on board the Cygnus cargo spacecraft, including experiments and cargo as well as a virtual reality camera for capturing spacewalks and a shiny new toilet.
In keeping with the tradition of naming Cygnus vehicles in memoriam of influential figures in space flight history, this spacecraft has been named "S.S. Kalpana Chawla" after the NASA astronaut who flew on board two shuttle missions including the fatal flight of the Columbia STS-107. She spent 31 days in space serving as a mission specialist and robotic arm operator. The vehicle is now en route to the ISS, and is expected to rendezvous with the station at 9:20 UTC on Monday October 5th.
The International Space Station, seen above transiting in front of the sun with a sunspot visible in the top left, is an orbiting laboratory that has been inhabited for the past 20 years by astronauts from fifteen different countries.
Many Cygnus missions carry medical experiments tailored for microgravity, and this one is no exception. On board is an experiment seeking to test new treatments for Leukemia, capable of distinguishing between cancer cells and healthy cells. According to a NASA press release provided by Principle Investigator Yusuf Erkul, M.D., "Identification of onco-selective mRNAs opens the door to smart biologics that are selectively active in cancer cells. These mRNA can be used to kill cancer cells and, at the same time, stimulate an enduring anti-tumor immune response and transform the field of immunotherapy by boosting the efficacy and tolerability of treatment." When testing cell cultures in orbit, we can study the geometry of cell growth without the constraints of gravity. This leads to more accurate results when studying experimental biologic treatments, and translates into safer medicine.
This launch is also carrying crop samples for astronauts to grow radishes on the space station. Although it is not the first time plants will be grown in space, each new experiment increases our understanding and experience with growing food away from the bounty of Earth. As we travel to Mars and to even further, more exotic locations, we will need to know how to grow the food needed to sustain us for long durations. Another experiment will test an electrochemical process to oxidize ammonia. Ammonia is composed of nitrogen and hydrogen, oxidation will separate these molecules producing nitrogen gas, water, and energy. This technology is critical for long duration spaceflight as a way to recycle waste water, but can also be used on Earth to provide clean water in remote locations.
On the topic of critical space travel hardware, few things are more important to the health and morale of astronauts than a good toilet. The new Universal Waste Management System is a $23 million upgrade that is smaller in size and has increased efficiency compared to the existing toilet on board the station. It is heavily automated, reducing maintenance time and allowing astronauts to focus their attention on matters of greater scientific importance. This system will also be utilized in the Orion Crew Capsule, which will fly to the moon later this decade and is planned to carry passengers on future deep space missions.
A new 360-degree virtual reality camera is also among this mission's cargo. It is designed to operate in the harsh vacuum of space and will document spacewalks while mounted to the Canadarm2 robotic arm on the exterior of the station. This project has been developed by the ISS National Lab and Time Magazine as a part of their series "Space Explorers: The ISS Experience", which is scheduled to premier this fall. Felix and Paul Studios designed the camera system and Nanoracks modified it for use in space, it will provide viewers with a stunning view of the Earth from orbit as it documents a spacewalk in its entirety. The series features an in depth look at life on the ISS in the uniquely immersive medium of virtual reality.
The successful launch of the NG-14 mission follows a scrub the day before. A ground sensor triggered a mission abort less than three minutes before liftoff on Oct 1st.
Upon arrival to the ISS, the Cygnus spacecraft will be captured by the stations robotic arm followed by a berthing process that will last approximately three hours. The vehicle will be filled with trash at the end of its roughly 75 day mission and will burn up while re-entering the Earth's atmosphere. Before that, however, it will release a number of small satellites known as "cubesats".
The next Antares/Cygnus mission, NG-15, is currently scheduled for February 1st, 2021 from Wallops Flight Facility.
Photos by Jon Reino from previous Antares missions