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Antares rocket
Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket rises from its Virginia launch pad, sending a Cygnus cargo craft to the International Space Station. (NASA Photo / Bill Ingalls)

Northrop Grumman launched a robotic Cygnus cargo capsule to the International Space Station today, marking one giant leap for a small satellite built by students at the University of Washington and Seattle’s Raisbeck Aviation High School.

The 7-pound HuskySat-1 was among 8,200 pounds of supplies, equipment and scientific payloads packed aboard the Cygnus for liftoff atop Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket at 9:59 a.m. ET (6:59 a.m. PT) from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on the Virginia coast. Hundreds of onlookers cheered as the rocket rose into sunny skies after a trouble-free countdown.

“Good launch all the way around,” launch conductor Adam Lewis said.

HuskySat-1, which is about the size of a loaf of bread, is the UW’s first student-built satellite to go into space. It’s designed to be sent out on its own early next year, to test a new type of pulsed plasma electric propulsion system as well as a high-bandwidth communication system. The K-band communication system was built by Paul Sturmer, a former UW graduate student who now works at Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture.

High schoolers at Raisbeck built HuskySat-1’s miniaturized camera system, which will send down low-resolution, black-and-white photos of Earth. Data will be transferred via antennas installed atop UW’s Johnson Hall.

“It will be exciting once it’s in orbit,” Paige Northway, a UW doctoral student who’s been involved with the project since its inception years ago, said in a pre-launch news release. “To me, the completion will be when we can get data from the satellite and send instructions back.”

HuskySat-1 is just one of seven student-built nanosatellites that are flying on Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus with support from NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative. And those seven mini-spacecraft make up just a small portion of the payload. Research equipment and experiments account for more than half of the shipment, which ranks among the heaviest loads ever put on a commercial U.S. cargo carrier.

The cargo items include a radiation protection vest that could be used during future missions to Mars, a device that recycles plastic for 3-D printing in space, and a zero-gravity toaster oven that will make it possible for the space station’s crew to make cookies. Fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies have also been packed aboard the Cygnus, to give the astronauts some samples for a taste test.

Other experiments will test a new type of carbon-fiber composite developed by the Lamborghini sports car company, a new technology for steering robotic rovers by remote control, and a new way to monitor machines and environments by analyzing the sounds they make.

NASA is also sending up some repair tools for fixing the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, a particle detector mounted on the space station’s hull.

This Cygnus craft is called the S.S. Alan Bean, in honor of the Apollo 12 astronaut who passed away last year. It’s due to catch up with the space station for a rendezvous on Monday. NASA astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch will latch onto the Cygnus with the station’s robotic arm and bring it in for its berthing.

Over the course of two months, the station’s crew will unload the Cygnus’ cargo and fill it back up with trash. In January, the S.S. Alan Bean is due to be set loose to deploy HuskySat-1 and other CubeSats from a higher orbit. Once that’s done, the Cygnus will descend through the atmosphere for its fiery disposal.

HuskySat-1 will be under UW’s control for its first three months of operation. In the spring, ownership and responsibility of the satellite will shift to AMSAT, which will operate the satellite’s amateur-radio linear transponder.

The nanosatellite will eventually lose altitude and burn up in the atmosphere, but students from Washington should have another piece of hardware in orbit long before that happens: CougSat-1, built at Washington State University, is due for launch a year from now.

Update for 1 p.m. PT Nov. 4: As expected, the Cygnus cargo craft was captured using the station’s robotic arm at 1:10 a.m. PT Nov. 4, and bolted onto the space station’s Unity module at 3:21 a.m. PT. Cygnus will remain attached to the space station for the next two months.

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