It’s perhaps not the prettiest spacecraft, its barrel shape more function than form. Like a truck, it hauls cargo to the International Space Station that is unloaded by astronauts who then fill it with trash, turning it as a massive space garbage can. When full of refuse, it falls back to Earth and is ignominiously incinerated in the atmosphere.
But Orbital ATK has big ambitions for its Cygnus spacecraft and will soon get to demonstrate what it can do. On Saturday morning, the Dulles-based company is scheduled to launch Cygnus aboard its Antares rocket from the Eastern Shore of Virginia. On the mission, Cygnus will be carrying 7,400 pounds of food, clothing and experiments to the orbiting station, some 240 miles above the Earth.
But this time, the spacecraft will be more than a cargo and trash hauler; it would become a temporary room on the space station, giving the astronauts an additional 27 cubic meters to do their work. On this flight, the Cygnus will be outfitted so that it would be able to support science experiments and other research on the orbiting laboratory.
“We’ve always considered to be part of the ISS, and that’s certainly true physically, but now we’ll be doing it functionally,” said Frank DeMauro, the general manager and vice president of the company's Advanced Programs division.
The step is part of an effort by Orbital ATK to eventually turn Cygnus into a habitat that could help NASA explore deep space, including the region around the moon known as cislunar space. The company has a contract from NASA to continue turning it into a habitat for astronauts that could connect with NASA’s Orion spacecraft, giving astronauts more room.
Cygnus won’t be the only private sector module attached to the space station. For months, Bigelow Aerospace’s BEAM, an inflatable habitat, has been affixed to the station as part of a test program to see how the technology works. Bigelow is also developing a habitat that would be much larger and could serve as a commercial outpost in space.
In addition to carrying cargo to the station, Cyngus will have 14 small satellites on board. After it serves as temporary space, the spacecraft will detach and fly about 50 km above the station to deploy the satellites. Then, full of trash, it will plunge back toward Earth, burning up in the atmosphere.
The launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility is scheduled for Saturday at 7:37 a.m.