Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket today sent a Cygnus cargo spacecraft on the first step of its journey to the International Space Station with 7,400 pounds of supplies and experiments, including a nanosatellite that its backers say will become the first “space nation.”
The Asgardia-1 satellite, which is roughly the size of a loaf of bread, is the product of an effort organized by Russian scientist Igor Ashurbeyli. It’ll store thousands of files uploaded by online fans who have signed up as “citizens” of Asgardia.
Ashurbeyli, who attended today’s launch at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, has said Asgardia-1 will be the foundation stone for a network of satellites independent of the world’s nations. “The Asgardia space kingdom has now established its sovereign territory in space,” the project’s website proclaimed.
Legal experts say the sovereignty claim is highly questionable, considering that satellite operations have to comply with the terms of Asgardia’s application to the Federal Communications Commission.
Asgardia-1 is among 14 pint-sized satellites that are due to be deployed from Cygnus after it completes its primary mission: delivering cargo to the space station. The bulk of the payload consists of food and equipment for the station’s crew, but there’s also a variety of scientific experiments on board.
One experiment will study the effect of zero gravity on antibiotic resistance, using E. coli bacteria as the experimental subjects. Another will test a miniaturized laser communication system, and yet another will try out a solar-powered radio antenna that’s optimized for nanosatellites.
Cygnus’ payload also includes a camera that Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli will use to shoot virtual-reality video for a National Geographic Channel documentary project.
Orbital ATK’s eighth cargo resupply mission got off the ground at 7:19 a.m. ET (4:19 a.m. PT) today, which was a day later than originally scheduled. Saturday’s launch attempt was called off at literally the last minute when a JetBlue commercial jetliner strayed into restricted airspace.
Today’s countdown was extended by five minutes to make sure a couple of boats stayed out of the restricted zone east of the launch site.
The cylinder-shaped Cygnus cargo carrier has been christened the S.S. Gene Cernan, in honor of the late Apollo 17 commander who left the freshest footprints on the moon in 1972. It’s due to rendezvous with the space station on Tuesday, and will be pulled into its berth using the station’s robotic arm.
After the cargo is unloaded, the craft will be loaded up with trash and set loose next month to deploy Asgardia-1 and other nanosatellites. Once its job is done, the S.S. Gene Cernan will plunge back into the atmosphere and burn itself up during re-entry.
Orbital ATK and SpaceX resupply the space station under the terms of multibillion-dollar contracts with NASA. A third contractor, Sierra Nevada Corp., successfully tested a prototype of its winged Dream Chaser space plane this weekend and is due to start flying to the space station in 2020.
Update for 9 p.m. PT Nov. 14: As expected, the Cygnus cargo ship made its rendezvous with the space station and was secured to a port on the Unity module at 4:15 a.m. PT Nov. 14. Cargo will be unloaded from the cylindrical craft over the next three weeks, and then the crew will fill it up with trash. In early December, Cygnus will be unberthed from the station, deploy its nanosatellites (including Asgardia-1) and descend to its fiery destruction during atmospheric re-entry.
Update for 5:30 p.m. PT Dec. 18: Asgardia-1 was deployed into Earth orbit shortly after the Cygnus craft’s release from the space station on Dec. 6. The Cygnus craft, and the 6,400 pounds of trash that was packed into it, burned up during atmospheric re-entry on Dec. 18.