Following a fiery explosion last year, Orbital ATK's Cygnus spacecraft returned to flight Sunday evening on a mission bound for the International Space Station.
The newly enhanced Cygnus is ferrying 7,745 pounds (3,513 kilograms) of cargo, its largest payload yet, including much needed supplies, station hardware, research experiments, and even Christmas presents for the crew.
Frank Culbertson, president of the space systems group at Orbital ATK, which makes the rocket, expressed his excitement ahead of the launch. "We are proud to be in this position and being able to launch supplies again to the space station," he said.
The Cygnus lifted off on time from Cape Canaveral's storied Launch Complex 41 atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket, following several weather delays. Cygnus is scheduled to arrive at the space station on Wednesday, where NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren will use the station's robotic arm to grapple the spacecraft before ground controllers pull it in to berth with the station.
This mission is important as it marks the first US cargo flight to the space station following a string of devastating launch failures that resulted in the loss of three cargo vehicles: one Russian and two American. In April a Russian cargo ship, Progress 59, spun out of control shortly after reaching orbit and ground controls teams were unable to control the vehicle, resulting in it burning up as it reentered Earth's atmosphere. Then in June, a SpaceX Dragon capsule was lost as it broke apart in the Atlantic Ocean when the rocket responsible for carrying it to space disintegrated shortly after launch.
A little over a year ago, on October 28, 2014, an Orbital-designed Antares rocket exploded approximately 15 seconds after lifting off from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.
Upgrades to the Cygnus spacecraft were in the works prior to the loss of the previous mission, said Tom Wilson, Orbital's vice president and general manager of the space systems group. "The newly upgraded Cygnus can carry 25 percent more mass, and has upgraded propellant systems and solar arrays," Wilson said.
The Cygnus spacecraft resembles a large aluminum container, and will fly un-piloted to the International Space Station, where it will be the first cargo ship to berth with the station's Earth-facing port on the Unity module. Cygnus will spend approximately one month attached to the station before it will meet a fiery end as it burns up in the Earth's atmosphere upon reentry.
Orbital ATK has named this spacecraft the S.S. Deke Slayton II in honor of the late astronaut, one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts and NASA's first Chief of the Astronaut Office. The previous Cygnus spacecraft was also named Deke Slayton.
"After NASA, Deke worked for one of the very first commercial space companies and they launched the very first commercial rocket," said retired astronaut Dan Tani, who now works for Orbital ATK as vice president of mission and cargo operations. "So we give him a lot of credit for plowing that field for us and allowing companies like Orbital ATK to come and succeed in commercial space."
As we reported last week, the Cygnus will bring up a pair of HoloLens devices. It will also bring a new jet pack called SAFER for the astronauts to wear on spacewalks, and a high pressure nitrogen and oxygen tank that will plug into the station's air supply network and ensure the crew has a fresh air supply.
Today's launch is the 103rd launch for United Launch Alliance (ULA)—a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing to provide launch services to customers like NASA, the U.S. Department of Defense, and more—since its foundation nine years ago this week. It also marks the 60th Atlas launch and will be the 12th and final launch of 2015 for ULA. It also marks the first time that ULA will send a vehicle to the International Space Station.
Cygnus is also acting as Santa's Sleigh. Crew supplies are always a part of resupply missions, and this mission includes Christmas presents from each of the crew member's families. NASA declined to say what the presents were.