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Atlas V rocket launches Orbital ATK cargo spacecraft 'SS Rick Husband'

The S.S. Rick Husband, an Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft, lifts off atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. (ULA)
March 22, 2016

— For the second, and perhaps final time, an Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo spacecraft launched atop an Atlas V rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida late Tuesday evening (March 22).

The S.S. Rick Husband, named for the late commander of the space shuttle Columbia's ill-fated 2003 mission, is now bound for a Saturday morning (March 26) rendezvous with the International Space Station, delivering more than 7,200 pounds (3,265 kg) of supplies and science experiments.

The Cygnus capsule's liftoff, from United Launch Alliance's (ULA) Complex 41 at 11:05 p.m. EDT (0305 GMT Mar 23), marked the last scheduled flight of a Cygnus on an Atlas V rocket. Orbital ATK changed to using the ULA booster after a 2014 launch failure with its own Antares rocket.

The company intends to resume launches with the Antares from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia with its next Cygnus mission later this summer.

"It is really up to NASA in terms of what types of missions they order in the future," said Frank Culbertson, president of the Space Systems Group at Orbital ATK and a former NASA astronaut. "We have offered both Atlas and Antares missions and it depends on what they need and what type of delivery they would like to have."

Science on the space station...

In addition to delivering food, clothing (including spacesuit components), crew supplies, spare parts and equipment to the station, the S.S. Rick Husband is also carrying science hardware to be used on and off the orbiting outpost.

Among the experiments that will be conducted aboard the orbiting laboratory are studies related to rocks from space and climbing lizards.

The Meteor Composition Determination (Meteor) study will enable space-based observations of meteors as they enter Earth's atmosphere using high-resolution video and image analysis.

The Strata-1 facility on board the S.S. Rick Husband will study how regolith behaves in microgravity using crushed meteorite. (NASA)

Another experiment, the Strata-1 facility, will use crushed meteorite, as well as glass beads, to simulate the behavior of regolith – the impact-shattered "soil" found on asteroids, comets and the moon – to better prepare for future robotic and astronaut missions.

Gecko Grippers will test new mounting devices that stick to surfaces without using adhesives. The grippers rely on the same basic traits as the hair on gecko lizards' feet, which allow the reptiles to climb vertical surfaces without falling.

One of the Gecko Grippers will remain stuck to a panel on the space station for a full year to prove the concept.

The Rick Husband also carries the Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF), a commercial 3D printer designed by Made In Space and sponsored by Lowe's Home Improvement.

...and off the space station

The Cygnus will remain berthed to the Earth-facing port of the station's Unity module through late May.

Once unloaded, the spaceship will be repacked with refuse and spent equipment to be destroyed when it re-enters the Earth's atmosphere.

Orbital ATK's OA-6 mission patch includes a representation of the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse. (Orbital ATK)

Before that however, the S.S. Rick Husband will serve as a launch platform for small satellites and a large combustion experiment.

"We will conduct experiments on board the spacecraft and deploy cubesats," said Culbertson, "both of which are firsts for Cygnus," said Culbertson.

Once it leaves the station, the Cygnus will be placed into a specific orbit to utilize a NanoRacks deployer to launch five cubesats, beginning their own autonomous missions.

Meanwhile on the S.S. Rick Husband, the Saffire-I payload will intentionally light a large-scale fire to observe how the flame behaves in the space environment. The results from Saffire may help improve the safety of astronauts on board future spacecraft.

"All previous combustion experiments in microgravity have been relatively small and controlled to ensure safety of the attending crew," Culbertson explained. "By conducting the Saffire-I experiment on board the unmanned Cygnus after it departs the [space station], we eliminate this concern."

"The [Saffire] experiment will deepen our understanding of fire growth in microgravity and safeguard future missions," he said.

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