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NASA sends experiments to ISS on commercial cargo spacecraft

24 March 2016

Scientific investigations of fire in microgravity and grippers inspired by geckos are among the cargo headed to the International Space Station.

Artist's impression of how a future robot called LEMUR (Limbed Excursion Mechanical Utility Robot) could inspect and maintain installations on the International Space Station using a gecko-inspired gripping system (photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

They will be travelling aboard an Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft, along with equipment to support some 250 other experiments and studies aboard the world’s only orbital laboratory.

Orbital ATK’s fifth cargo delivery flight under its Commercial Resupply Services contract with NASA launched at 11:05p.m. EDT Tuesday on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The Cygnus is scheduled to arrive at the orbiting laboratory Saturday, March 26.

The station’s Expeditions 47 and 48 crews will employ these science payloads to support experiments in biology, biotechnology, physical science and Earth science – research that improves life on Earth -- including:

• Saffire-I provides a new way to study a large fire on an exploration craft, which has not been possible in the past because the risks for performing such studies on spacecraft with astronauts aboard are too high.
• Meteor will enable the first space-based observations of meteors entering Earth’s atmosphere from space.
• Strata-I could give us answers about how regolith behaves and moves in microgravity, how easy or difficult it is to anchor a spacecraft in regolith, how it interacts with spacecraft and spacesuit materials, and other important properties.
• The Gecko Gripper study tests a gecko-inspired adhesive gripping device that can stick on command in the harsh environment of space.
• The Additive Manufacturing Facility will add an upgraded 3D printing capability to the station.

The gecko-inspired grippers have, to date, only been tested in NASA's micro-gravity aircraft through NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate’s Flight Opportunities Program. The gecko-gripping technology was used to grapple a 10kg cube and a 100kg person. The gecko material was separately tested in more than 30,000 cycles of turning the stickiness "on" and "off" when Parness was in graduate school at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. Despite the extreme conditions, the adhesive stayed strong.

Researchers made three sizes of hand-operated "astronaut anchors," which are made currently in footprints of 2.5 by 10cm, 5 by 15cm and 7.6 by 20cm. They served as an experiment to test the gecko adhesives in microgravity for long periods of time and as a practical way for astronauts to attach clipboards, pictures and other handheld items to the interior walls of the station. Astronauts would simply attach the object to the mounting post of the gripper by pushing together the two components of the gripper. 

NASA astronaut and Expedition 46 Commander Tim Kopra will capture Cygnus at about 6:40a.m. Saturday, March 26, using the space station's Canadarm2 robotic arm to take hold of the spacecraft. Astronaut Tim Peake of ESA (European Space Agency) will support Kopra in a backup position. NASA TV coverage of capture will begin at 5:30a.m.

Saffire-1 will remain on the spacecraft once all the other supplies are unloaded, and the vehicle will be attached to the space station for about two months. Once it departs and the spacecraft is a safe distance from the space station, engineers will remotely conduct the first Saffire experiment before the Cygnus’ destructive reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. Before detaching from the station, Cygnus will also be filled with about 1360kg of rubbish, which will be burned up over the Pacific Ocean.

This is the second flight of an enhanced Cygnus spacecraft, and the second using the Atlas V launch system. The cargo freighter features a greater payload capacity, supported by new fuel tanks and solar arrays, and an extended pressurized cargo module that increases the spacecraft’s interior volume by 25 percent, enabling more cargo to be delivered with each launch.

For more information on the Orbital ATK's mission, click here.


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