With approximately 7,400 pounds of science experiments, tools and food tightly packed inside, Orbital ATK’s Cygnus spacecraft was launched aboard an Antares rocket and began its journey to the International Space Station on Sunday, November 12. Just two days later, the spacecraft reached its destination where it was greeted with a warm welcome from six astronauts anxiously waiting its arrival. This mission marks the company’s eighth cargo delivery to the orbiting laboratory. While the delivery of cargo and removal of trash has become almost routine for the cargo module, each mission is unique and continues to demonstrate the capabilities of the Cygnus spacecraft.

Cygnus as Extension of International Space Station

For this mission, known as OA-8, Cygnus was named after space program pioneer Gene Cernan. On November 14, the S.S. Gene Cernan docked with the International Space Station before beginning the second phase of its mission. For the first time, Cygnus will be used as an extension of the space station by serving as a scientific platform, demonstrating its ability to expand the station’s capabilities for hosting experiments. Once the experiment inside the cargo module is completed, Cygnus will be filled with trash and unberthed from the station.

The S.S. Gene Cernan is grappled by the International Space Station's Canadarm2, operated by Astronaut Paolo Nespoli. (Credit: NASA)

Upon leaving the International Space Station, Cygnus will release 14 cube satellites from the attached Nanoracks deployer and then perform a safe and destructive reentry into Earth’s atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean. Although the removal of garbage may not seem like an exciting task, it is a critical part of keeping the station safe and clean for astronauts to work.

Acting as an extension of the lab is just the beginning of Cygnus’s capabilities. In preparation for future manned trips to deep space, Orbital ATK has already begun the process of evolving Cygnus beyond low Earth orbit with the completion of Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) Phase 1. For this initiative, NASA asked companies to conduct concept studies and explore technology needed for deep space exploration. To help achieve this goal, Orbital ATK has turned its attention to the demonstrated versatility of Cygnus. NextSTEP Phase 2 is now underway, and Orbital ATK is maturing the technology and design to construct on-ground simulators of a deep space habitat.

Orbital ATK has used computer simulations to demonstrate that the company has the ability launch a habitat module aboard NASA's heavy lift Space Launch System (SLS) rocket with a crewed Orion capsule. On this potential mission, Cygnus would deploy as an initial habitat in cislunar space. When the Orion capsule and its crew return to Earth, the module would remain, operating autonomously, serving as a platform for experiments and potentially as a destination for future crewed missions.

Eventually, additional modules would be added to the habitat, creating a cislunar outpost, and could even serve as disposable vehicles to deliver crew supplies and experiments. The modularity of the system allows for additional segments, including a node to provide supplemental docking ports that would allow for multiple visiting vehicles. Ultimately, crewed missions would help mature technologies for long duration human space exploration, including a trip to Mars.

Artist Concept of Cygnus Habitat
Artist concept of a Cygnus-derived deep space habitat and logistics modules.

In the meantime, Orbital ATK will continue to meet the requirements of the Commercial Resupply Services contract (CRS) delivering cargo to the International Space Station. Under the current contract, CRS-1, Orbital ATK will deliver approximately 66,000 pounds of cargo to the station, and beginning in 2019, the company will carry out a minimum of six initial cargo missions under the CRS-2 contract. This partnership is helping to cultivate a robust American commercial space industry, allowing NASA to focus on developing the next-generation rocket and spacecraft that will enable humans to conduct deep space exploration missions.