Antares Ready for Sunday Night Launch, Viewable Along East Coast – UPDATE

Antares Ready for Sunday Night Launch, Viewable Along East Coast – UPDATE

UPDATE, October 16, 6:30 pm ET:  Orbital ATK has postponed the launch for one day because of a bad ground support cable. The new launch date and time are Monday, October 17, at 7:40 pm ET.  If that date holds, Cygnus OA-5 will loiter in orbit for a few days rather than going directly to ISS in order to allow the Soyuz MS-02 crew to dock on Friday first.  Cygnus will wait until Sunday, October 23, with grapple by the robotic Canadarm2 at approximately 7:00 am ET.

ORIGINAL STORY, OCTOBER 16, 6:04 am ET:  Orbital ATK will launch an Antares rocket with a Cygnus spacecraft full of cargo for the International Space Station (ISS) at 8:03 pm ET tonight (Sunday).  There is a 5 minute launch window.  Weather is forecast 95 percent “go” for the launch from Wallops Island, VA on the Delaware-Maryland-Virginia (DELMARVA) peninsula.  By coincidence, the launch will take place just half an hour after China launches a two-man crew to its new Tiangong-2 space station.

NASA TV coverage begins at 7:00 pm ET of the launch of Orbital ATK’s Commercial Resupply Services-5 (OA-5) mission, but it also should be visible to the naked eye from New England to South Carolina and as far west as Charleston, WV.  Orbital ATK provided a map of where and when to look.

Where to Look for the Orbital ATK OA-5 Launch on October 16, 2016.  (L = launch) Image credit: Orbital ATK.

This is the first flight of Antares since an October 28, 2014 launch failure that was caused by one of its two Russian NK-33/AJ26 rocket
engines.  During the past two years, Orbital ATK has substituted newer
Russian RD-181 engines in all of its Antares rockets, so this is also
the first flight of the re-engined Antares.  

The failed mission in 2014 was designated Orb-3 — the third operational ISS cargo mission for Orbital Sciences Corporation, which later merged with ATK to form Orbital ATK.

Orbital ATK launched two Cygnus missions from Cape Canaveral, FL using United Launch Alliance
(ULA) Atlas V rockets while Antares was being readied for flight.  Those were Orbital ATK-4 (OA-4) in December 2015 and OA-6 in March 2016,   Today’s mission is OA-5 and, as the name indicates, was originally intended to fly in-between those two launches, but was delayed for a variety of technical reasons.

The OA-5 Cygnus spacecraft is loaded with 5,300 pounds (2,400 kilograms) of supplies, equipment, and science experiments.  The spacecraft is named after the late Alan Poindexter, a former NASA astronaut who died in 2012 from injuries sustained in a non-space-related accident.  Poindexter flew on two space shuttle missions that delivered modules to the ISS. 

If all goes as planned, OA-5 will arrive at the ISS on Wednesday morning and be grappled using the robotic Canadarm2 at about 7:00 am ET and berthed to the space station approximately two hours later.  If the launch is delayed for any reason, the next opportunity is tomorrow, Monday, at 7:40 pm ET.

This is the beginning of a busy two-week period at the ISS.  Three new crew members will launch to the ISS on Wednesday aboard the Soyuz MS-02 spacecraft, about three hours before OA-5 arrives at ISS.  The Soyuz MS-02 crew is taking the two-day trajectory to ISS, with arrival on Friday.  The three crew are NASA’s Shane Kimbrough and Roscosmos’s Andrey Borisneko and Sergey Rhyzhikov.

If the OA-5 launch slips to Monday, NASA and Orbital ATK plan to have the Cygnus spacecraft loiter in space for several days and berth after the Soyuz MS-02 crew is aboard.  Ten days after Soyuz MS-02 arrives, the three crew members currently aboard the ISS (NASA’s Kate Rubins, JAXA’s Takuya Onishi and Roscosmos’s Anatoly Ivanishin) will return to Earth. They will be replaced in November.

OA-5 will remain berthed to ISS for about one month.  After it departs from the ISS in November, several cubesats will be deployed.  For the first time, they will be released from an altitude above the ISS, providing a longer orbital lifetime.   In subsequent days, a second SAFFIRE fire experiment will be conducted inside the Cygnus capsule to study how fires behave in weightlessness.  Once the experiment is completed, Cygnus will be commanded to reenter Earth’s atmosphere and the entire capsule will burn up due to the heat of reentry.  Cygnus spacecraft are not designed to survive reentry and are used for trash disposal.

This “commercial cargo” launch is part of Orbital ATK’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA under which the company is delivering a total of 66,000 pounds (33,000 kilograms) of cargo to the ISS through 2018.   SpaceX, with its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft, is Orbital ATK’s competitor for CRS missions.   Both companies as well as Sierra Nevada were awarded at least six flights each under the follow-on CRS2 contract,  Sierra Nevada is building the Dream Chaser winged spacecraft (which looks like a small space shuttle) that will be launched with ULA’s Atlas V rocket.  The CRS2 missions begin in 2019.  

ISS is a partnership among the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan and 11 European countries acting through the European Space Agency (ESA).  All the partners except Europe are committed to operating the ISS at least through 2024.  ESA is expected to agree at its December 2016 ministerial meeting where the ministers in charge of space activities for each of its member countries make decisions about future activities.

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