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Cygnus launch
United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket lifts off, sending Orbital ATK’s Cygnus cargo capsule into space from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. (Credit: NASA)

Orbital ATK’s commercial Cygnus cargo capsule was lofted into orbit tonight atop an Atlas 5 rocket, carrying an upgraded 3-D printer, a gecko-type gripper, a fire-starting experiment and tons of other supplies to the International Space Station.

The launch vehicle made an on-time departure from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 11:05 p.m. ET (8:05 p.m. PT). If all goes according to plan, astronauts will grapple the uncrewed Cygnus spacecraft with the station’s robotic arm and pull it in to its berthing port on the Unity node on Saturday.

This will be Orbital ATK’s fourth delivery to the station under the terms of a $1.9 billion contract with NASA, and the second to make use of United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5. Orbital ATK had to turn to the Atlas when its own Antares rocket blew up shortly after launch in October 2014, destroying a Cygnus shipment. A redesigned Antares is expected to make its debut later this spring.

About 7,500 pounds of supplies have been packed aboard the 20-foot-long Cygnus capsule. It’s been christened the S.S. Rick Husband, in honor of the space shuttle commander who was among those killed in 2003’s Columbia tragedy.

Most of those supplies consist of food, water, clothing and other essentials for the space station crew. But the cargo manifest also includes a few more exotic items:

  • The Additive Manufacturing Facility is an upgraded version of the 3-D printer that was tested in orbit in 2014-2015. The AMF, which is about the size of a microwave oven, can take designs that are sent up from the ground and turn them into plastic tools and other objects for the station’s crew. It’ll be available for use by NASA and other space agencies, as well as researchers, educators and entrepreneurs. The project is the result of a commercial partnership involving Made In Space and Lowe’s Innovation Labs.
  • Gecko Grippers are experimental grappling tools that take advantage of gecko-like adhesive properties. The tools’ adhesive pads can be switched on and off many times. Researchers say such grippers eventually could be used to grab onto free-floating objects in space. The tools are being developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
  • The Meteor Composition Determination experiment will capture high-resolution pictures and video of meteors entering Earth’s atmosphere from the station, as seen from above. The spectral signature of the meteor flashes should give researchers a better idea what all those flecks of cosmic grit are made of. Such detailed observations are difficult if not impossible to gather from the ground. Earlier versions of the U.S.-Japanese experiment were destroyed during 2014’s Cygnus blow-up and 2015’s failure of a SpaceX Dragon resupply mission..
  • The Spacecraft Fire Experiment I, or SAFFIRE-I, is a box that’s designed to light up the biggest fire ever intentionally set in space. SAFFIRE-I will stay aboard Cygnus throughout the time that it’s berthed to the station. After the trash-filled Cygnus is set loose and falls to a safe distance, remote commands will start the fire, and sensors will monitor how the flames spread. The experiment will transmit data to NASA’s Glenn Research Center. Once the test is complete, the Cygnus will descend through the atmosphere and burn up. The results should help NASA develop better strategies for dealing with the potentially deadly risk of fires aboard spacecraft.

The Cygnus is expected to stay berthed to the station for about two months.

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