Antares launches OA-9 Cygnus to the ISS

by William Graham

Orbital ATK’s Cygnus spacecraft began its next supply run to the International Space Station Monday, with liftoff aboard an Antares rocket from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia. Launch came at the end of a five-minute window at 04:44 Eastern Time (08:44 UTC).

Monday’s launch begins the tenth flight of Cygnus, one of two US resupply vehicles that service the space station, delivering cargo and equipment to the outpost in low Earth orbit. Monday’s resupply mission is designated OA-9, with the spacecraft named the SS J.R. Thompson. Cygnus will arrive at the ISS on Thursday and is expected to remain berthed at the station until mid-July.

Developed by Orbital Sciences Corporation – which became Orbital ATK following a 2015 merger with Alliant Techsystems – Cygnus can deliver up to 3,750 kilograms (8,270 lb) of pressurized cargo the station. Cygnus was first demonstrated through NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, with a September 2013 test flight validating the spacecraft’s performance in orbit and culminating in a successful berthing at the International Space Station. The spacecraft has since conducted eight missions under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract – seven of which have been completed successfully.

SpaceX developed their Dragon spacecraft under the COTS program, and also carry out CRS missions for NASA. In 2016 NASA awarded Orbital and SpaceX further contracts under the CRS2 program, while Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser spacecraft was added to the project. Under CRS2, Cygnus will fly a minimum of six missions, of which NASA have already called up two and begun the process to call up a third.

OA-9 is the second of four missions that Orbital ATK were awarded as an extension to their original CRS contract. Orbital were originally awarded eight CRS missions, which was reduced to seven after enhancements to Cygnus and the use of more powerful Atlas rockets for several launches allowed the company to carry the planned amount of cargo in fewer flights. The four extension missions, beginning with last November’s OA-8, bridge the gap to the beginning of CRS2.

Cygnus was designed to leverage existing hardware at the time of its inception. The spacecraft’s service module is based on Orbital ATK’s experience with its GEOStar and LEOStar lines of satellites, while the Pressurised Cargo Module (PCM) was built by Thales Alenia Space as an evolution of the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM) that was used by the Space Shuttle to transport cargo to and from the station.

OA-9 will use the Enhanced Cygnus configuration, first flown in 2015, which includes a stretched cargo module and redesigned solar arrays and fuel tanks, increasing the amount of cargo that the spacecraft can carry. An unpressurized version of Cygnus has also been designed, to transport externally-mounted cargo to the ISS. However, NASA has not yet ordered any missions with this version of the spacecraft.

OA-9 Cygnus in processing flow at Wallops

Cygnus normally launches aboard Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket, which was developed alongside Cygnus. The spacecraft is also compatible with United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket, which has been used for three flights – twice while Antares was grounded following an October 2014 launch failure and again last year to leverage the additional payload capacity available when Cygnus flies aboard the more powerful Atlas rocket.

Monday’s launch used Antares, which flies from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops Island, Virginia.

Orbital ATK has established a tradition of naming their Cygnus spacecraft after astronauts who members of their team have known or worked alongside, and who have contributed to the space industry. Breaking with this tradition, the OA-9 Cygnus is named the SS J.R. Thompson after the former Chief Operating Officer of Orbital Sciences Corporation who passed away last November at the age of 81.

James Robert Thompson Jr. was born in South Carolina in March 1936. His aerospace career began at Pratt and Whitney in 1960 after he had spent two years serving in an administrative role with the US Navy, where he held the rank of Lieutenant. Thompson joined NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in 1963 and worked as a liquid propulsion systems engineer on the team that developed the J-2 engine. In the 1970s he served as project manager for the development of the Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME), the RS-25. Thompson served as the director of the Marshall Space Flight Center from September 1986 until July 1989, when he became the Deputy Administrator of NASA.

Thompson left NASA in 1991, joining Orbital Sciences Corporation as an executive vice president and the company’s chief technical officer. In 1993 Thompson was appointed the general manager of Orbital Sciences’ Launch Systems Group, overseeing key projects including turning Orbital’s Pegasus rocket around after a number of early failures. Kurt Eberly, Orbital ATK’s Vice President and Antares Program Manager, who worked closely with Thompson described his leadership as instrumental in “Recovering from early problems and getting us on the right path”, describing how Thompson “professionalized the workforce and really stood up a matrix organization for the engineering staff”.

In a recent exclusive interview with’s Chris Gebhardt, Eberly described Thompson’s role in the development of Antares, which occurred while Thompson was Orbital’s President and Chief Operating Officer, a role that he held from 1999 until his retirement from the role in 2011. Eberly discussed how Thompson had initiated monthly reviews of the progress on Antares’ launch site at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, bringing together all of the parties involved in the project – Orbital, NASA, Wallops Island and the Commonwealth of Virginia – where he would “drag all of us down to Wallops, sit us in a conference room, and he would grill us for a couple hours.”

Eberly described that “whether you worked for Orbital or you worked for the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport or whether you worked for NASA, I think J.R.’s opinion was that everybody worked for him and he just had that attitude. But everyone knew that his ultimate goal was for the success of the project and so everybody listened to him and respected him.” Eberly felt that the Antares project would not be where it is today without Thompson’s vision and leadership, explaining that “without him realising that we’re all going to have to work together across these different organisational boundaries, we never would have got where we are, and this launch pad and space complex down here never would’ve gotten built.”

In the same interview, Frank DeMauro – Orbital’s Vice President and General Manager of its Advanced Programs Division – described how Thompson’s was actively involved in the development of Cygnus. “His initial point was he just wanted this to work and we used to have these bi-weekly meetings with him and the engineering team. He was really great at getting through, working through the chatter and getting to the heart of the matter.”

Of the decision to name the OA-9 mission after Thompson. DeMauro described that “to so many of us was a special, special man” and that many people at Orbital ATK “can now say we knew him, we worked with him, we loved working with him. So, this was just extra special, he was a wonderful person to work with, and to see the reaction of the team … when we announced that we were naming the mission after J.R., was just a very special thing.” DeMauro said that  “we were blessed to be able to work with him and we’re so happy the mission is named after him. It’s a really fitting tribute for him”.

Eberly recalled how when he first met Thompson, he had a “very gruff personality” and “could be a little harsh. But then over time he gets to know you and you realize that he really just wants the project to succeed and he brings this level of professionalism and determination to every project that he oversaw.” Eberly reflected that the mission was “just a great tribute to him and we miss him on this program”.

The SS J.R. Thompson will carry 3,350 kilograms (7,385 lb) of cargo to the International Space Station. Including its cargo and 800 kilograms (1,764 lb) of propellant, Cygnus will have a total mass at launch of 6,173 kilograms (13,608 lb). The cargo includes 1,191 kilograms (2,626 lb) of hardware for the US and international segments of the outpost and 13 kilograms (29 lb) for the Russian segment.  The payload also includes 132 kilograms (291 lb) of hardware to support spacewalks, 100 kilograms (220 lb) of computer equipment and 811 kilograms (1,788 lb) of supplies and provisions for the crew.

OA-9 Cygnus during mating operations

The cargo includes a new external high-definition camera assembly (EHDC) to be mounted outside the station during a later spacewalk, pressure management devices designed to save air when elements of the station are depressurised – such as a docking corridor when a docked spacecraft departs – components for a new water storage tank assembly, oxygen resupply tanks and new interior lighting for the station.

Scientific equipment and investigations make up 1,021 kilograms (2,251 lb) of the cargo aboard the SS J.R. Thompson.

Biomolecule Extraction and Sequencing Technology (BEST) will attempt to use DNA and RNA sequencing to identify unknown microbes aboard the ISS. The experiment will allow a better understanding of how organisms adapt to the environment aboard the space station, including determining any difference in the rate of genetic mutation in space compared to on Earth.

The Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) will study how atoms interact in microgravity at temperatures close to absolute zero. By performing this experiment in microgravity, scientists hope that they will be able to observe this matter in a condensate form for longer than they would be able to in a laboratory on Earth.

One investigation will see astronauts attempt to use a hand-held sextant to navigate by the stars, validating the use of traditional navigation techniques as an emergency backup for future deep-space missions. The experiment builds on the use of sextants during the Apollo program, where they were used as a backup and to provide additional calibration to the spacecraft’s inertial guidance system.

Optical Coherence Tomography 2 (OCT2) is a medical instrument that will be used to monitor the astronauts’ eyes, assessing the effects of Spaceflight-Associated Neuro-Ocular Syndrome (SANS), a condition known to affect crewmembers on long-duration spaceflights.

A commercial liquid-liquid separation system, developed by commercial company Zaiput Flow Technologies, will be tested aboard the space station. This system, which uses the surface forces within a liquid mixture to separate it into its components, could open the door to new types of microgravity experiment aboard the space station and provide a benefit to future medical research and drug development.

Another commercial facility, Ice Cubes, is being carried to the space station for installation in the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Columbus module. Ice Cubes consists of a rack that will house modular experiments for commercial customers under an agreement between ESA and Belgian company Space Applications Services.

ESA’s Ice Cubes

Fifteen miniature satellites – built to the CubeSat standard – are also being carried aboard Cygnus: nine of these are being carried as pressurised cargo, to be deployed from the ISS at a later date, while the other six are loaded into an external deployment mechanism mounted on the Cygnus, to be released after departure from the station. The CubeSats are being carried as part of an agreement between NASA and NanoRacks, a company providing commercial access to the space station. The external deployer and its CubeSats accounts for a further 82 kilograms (181 lb) of cargo aboard Monday’s flight.

Of the nine satellites that will be deployed from the space station, seven are being flown as part of NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) program, under the ELaNa 23 designation.

Ohio State University’s CubeSat Radiometer Radio Frequency Interface Technology (CubeRRT) is a six-unit CubeSat that will attempt to detect radio-frequency interference affecting a microwave radiometer that can be used for atmospheric sounding. By detecting interference, the satellite will be able to mitigate its effects on the data it collects and build an accurate picture of atmospheric water content and soil moisture.
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