With a blue Atlantic lapping nearby and a clear blue sky beckoning, a Northrop Grumman Antares rocket blasted off from Virginia’s spaceport Wednesday afternoon to resupply the International Space Station.
Mission controllers at NASA Wallops Flight Facility, Johnson Space Center and Northrop Grumman in Dulles reported no issues leading up to, during or after the seamless launch from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island.
But it wasn’t until nine minutes later, when the Cygnus cargo spacecraft successfully separated from the Antares, that rocket-maker Northrop Grumman controllers broke into smiles and applause.
“Launch control reporting a good ascent of the Cygnus vehicle on top of the Antares rocket, carrying it on its nine-minute journey into orbital insertion,” said NASA spokesman Gary Jordan.
The Cygnus is packed with nearly 7,600 pounds of cargo, its heaviest payload yet.
Half of the cargo is research projects specifically designed for microgravity. Cygnus also carries a good amount of crew supplies, said Jordan, including plenty of foodstuffs such as smoked turkey, pork chops, fruit cocktails, mashed potatoes and candied yams.
Wednesday’s launch is Northrop Grumman’s 11th and final mission under a $1.9 billion commercial resupply contract awarded by NASA in 2008.
This fall, Northrop Grumman is expected to begin making eight more resupply flights through 2024 under a second NASA contract awarded in 2016.
It is yet unknown how many of those missions will fly from Virginia.
Among the experiments now bound for the orbiting laboratory are a study of the relationship between glucose metabolism and aging arteries and bones, technology to develop nanoparticle delivery systems to treat chronic diseases such as Alzheimer’s, a new scrubber concept to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, an experiment to deploy small, cheap and efficient free-flying robots in space, and a study of the effects of spaceflight on antibody production and immune response using mice as test subjects.
The Cygnus also is carrying three tiny satellites designed by Virginia college students that station astronauts will deploy in early July. The CubeSats will take measurements of the atmosphere during orbital decay and send the data to ground stations at their universities of origin.
One satellite was developed and instrumented by students at Old Dominion University. It’s designed to orbit for up to four months before burning up in the atmosphere.
The other two, developed by students at the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech, are expected to orbit and transmit for up to two years.
Students at Hampton University developed a tool that will be used to analyze the data.
The Cygnus is expected to berth with the space station at 5:30 a.m. Friday and stay for about three months.
After astronauts unpack the payload, they’ll repack the spacecraft with 7,700 pounds of station trash that will incinerate as the Cygnus burns up on reentry.
Tamara Dietrich, 757-247-7892, email@example.com, DP_Dietrich