Orb-1 Mission Ready for Launch Tomorrow, Ants and Antibiotic Experiment Aboard

Orb-1 Mission Ready for Launch Tomorrow, Ants and Antibiotic Experiment Aboard

After a one-day launch delay because of frigid temperatures at the launch site, Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Orb-1 cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) is ready for launch tomorrow, January 8, 2014.  The 5-minute launch window opens at 1:32 pm ET and, weather permitting, should be visible along much of the East Coast.

Orb-1 is Orbital’s first operational launch of its Antares rocket and Cygnus cargo spacecraft to ISS under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.  The company successfully completed a demonstration flight in September-October 2013.   Tomorrow’s flight will take 2,780 pounds of supplies to the ISS, including science experiments.  If the launch takes place on schedule, it will arrive at the ISS on Sunday where it will be grappled by the space station’s robotic arm, Canadarm2, at 6:02 am EST and installed onto the Harmony module around 7:00 am EST.  Both events will be broadcast on NASA TV.

The launch was originally scheduled for December, but NASA delayed it to allow ISS astronauts to focus on repairing a coolant loop problem.  It initially was rescheduled for today (January 7), but then delayed because of an extremely cold Arctic blast affecting much of the United States, including Wallops Island, VA, home to NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS), the launch site for this mission.

Sarah Daughtery, Wallops flight director for the launch, said today that the forecast for tomorrow is excellent, with a 95 percent chance of favorable weather.  Maps showing locations along the East Coast where the launch may be visible are on Orbital’s website.

It is unusual for U.S. launches to be delayed by cold weather since the main launch sites are in Florida and California and rarely experience sub-freezing temperatures.  Today’s high temperature at Wallops was 20 degrees Fahrenheit (F) after dropping to 12 degrees F overnight, and that is without wind chill.   How cold weather affects Antares was a major question at a press conference today.  Two Orbital representatives, Frank Culbertson,  Executive Vice President and General Manager of Advanced Programs Group, and Mike Pinkston, Antares program manager, explained that it is a combination of ensuring that rocket hardware is within the temperature range for which it was designed and tested and that ground crews could perform their tasks without undue exposure.  Pinkston said that the threshold is 20 degrees F ambient air temperature for some of the rocket’s components. 

This is the first of three missions this year for Orbital under the CRS contract.  The next two will take place in May and October.   SpaceX also will be launching two or three CRS missions this year — their next launch of the Dragon capsule to ISS is scheduled for February 22.   NASA’s Deputy ISS program manager Dan Hartman said today that “we are hitting our stride” with these commercial cargo missions, with a total of five or six planned this year.

Among the science experiments being transported to the ISS on Cygnus are a number sponsored by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), a non-profit organization created and supported by NASA to find non-NASA users for the U.S. National Laboratory portion of the ISS.   Congress declared the U.S. research facilities aboard the ISS to be a National Laboratory in the 2005 NASA Authorization Act in the hope of attracting other government agencies, universities, and the private sector to utilize its unique microgravity environment for research.    

At a science briefing today, ISS associate program scientist Tara Ruttley said that Cygnus will be carrying the largest set of experiments from CASIS to date, and CASIS Communications Manager Patrick O’Neill called it an “historic time for CASIS.”  Funding for the CASIS-sponsored research comes from a variety of sources, he said, including some of the $15 million per year seed money from NASA. 

Luis Zea, a Ph. D. student at the University of Colorado-Boulder, described two experiments developed by BioServe Space Technologies, a NASA-funded center at the university, that are aboard this mission.  One is an experiment to determine the effectiveness of antibiotics in microgravity.  The experiment involves 128 test tubes of a non-pathogenic strain of E. coli to which different concentrations of antibiotics will be introduced.  The test tubes will be returned to Earth later this year, split on two different SpaceX Dragon spacecraft (because of space constraints).   Zea also discussed an “ants in space” experiment, an educational project for K-12 students.   Ants from North Carolina, Colorado and Virginia will be taken to space and their foraging behavior in microgravity will be videotaped.  Students around the country can view the videotapes and compare them to ant colonies in their classrooms that will serve as control groups.  More information on the experiments and how teachers can participate is on the CU-Boulder website.

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