Antares Cygnus OA-9
An Orbital ATK Antares rocket launches a Cygnus cargo spacecraft May 21 from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia. Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

ARCADIA, Calif. — An Orbital ATK Antares rocket successfully launched a Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station May 21 on a mission that may be the swan song for the company as an independent entity.

The Antares lifted off from Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, Virginia, at 4:44 a.m. Eastern, at the end of its five-minute launch window. Controllers moved the launch from the beginning to the end of the window because of weather constraints, which eased as the countdown progressed.

The rocket placed the Cygnus spacecraft into orbit nine minutes after liftoff, and the Cygnus deployed its twin solar arrays about an hour later. The spacecraft is scheduled to arrive at the ISS early May 24.

“It was just an outstanding, outstanding launch,” said Kirk Shireman, NASA ISS program manager, at a post-launch briefing. “I’m very pleased with how the mission started and how the mission is progressing.”

The Cygnus spacecraft, named “S.S. J.R. Thompson” by Orbital ATK after the late company executive, is carrying 3,350 kilograms of cargo for the ISS. That includes a mix of hardware for the ISS, scientific payloads and crew supplies.

The scientific payloads on the spacecraft include the Cold Atom Lab, an experiment that uses lasers to slow atoms until they are almost motionless, cooling them to temperatures far below what is possible on Earth. Another, the Biomolecule Extraction and Sequencing Technology experiment, will test equipment that allows for easier sequencing of DNA that supports research in the effects of weightless and long-duration spaceflight.

NASA also plans to use the Cygnus to test its ability to boost the station’s orbit. The spacecraft’s main thruster will perform a burn late in its stay on the ISS, changing the station’s orbital velocity by 0.06 meters per second.

The test, Shireman said, is intended to demonstrate if Cygnus can be used later to reboost the station or, eventually, deorbit it at the end of the station’s life. “It definitely opens up options for us in the future,” he said.

The launch could be the last for Orbital ATK as an independent company. Northrop Grumman announced a deal last September to acquire Orbital ATK for $9.2 billion. Northrop executives said in April that they expected the deal to close in the first half of this year, once it receives regulatory approval from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. Orbital’s next launch, of a NASA space science mission on a Pegasus rocket, is scheduled for mid-June.

Orbital ATK officials said they expect no changes in Antares or Cygnus operations once the merger does close. “We expect to build and test and operate them the same way we’ve done it before,” said Frank DeMauro, vice president and general manager of the advanced programs division of Orbital ATK, at a pre-launch briefing May 20. “I don’t expect any changes going forward.”

This mission is the ninth under Orbital ATK’s original Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA. Two more missions remain under that contract, one scheduled for late this year and the other in early 2019. The company will then transition to its follow-on CRS-2 contract, which includes at least six Cygnus missions starting in the second half of 2019.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...