Next week NASA will go where the federal space agency has never intentionally gone before: Up in flames.
Or more specifically, the spacecraft it's launching next week will eventually be burned up by researchers eager to find out what it's really like to deal with a fire in space.
On Tuesday, Orbital ATK's Cygnus spacecraft will launch atop a 188-foot Atlas V rocket, built by United Launch Alliance. The launch from the Florida coast will be Orbital's fifth commercial resupply mission for NASA, and the Cygnus craft will tote more than 7,000 pounds of supplies to the International Space Station, including food, water and the many other items needed to live and do scientific work in low-Earth orbit. And then, once the resupply mission is completed, the Cygnus, filled with ISS trash, will separate from the space station and, well, NASA will light that sucker on fire.
Now, it would be easy to look at NASA's recent history with Orbital and wonder about how NASA's Spacecraft Fire Experiment, known as Saffire, just happens to include burning up an Orbital spacecraft. After all, the 2014 incident when Orbital's Antares rocket thundered majestically off a launchpad at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in eastern Virginia and then rather unceremoniously exploded six seconds later was a huge embarrassment for both the space agency and the company.
It turned out that the problem was the U.S.-Ukrainian-made Antares rocket. (There's been a strong push from U.S. politicians to get away from using rocket engines built by U.S.-Russian collaborations from the 1990s and early 2000s, as Huffington Post recently pointed out, hence the Antares.)
However, NASA's Office of the Inspector General issued a scathing report on Orbital, contending the commercial space company's plan to get itself up and running with a reworked Antares rocket in order to fulfill its $1.9 billion contract with NASA by the end of 2016 was sorely lacking, as we've previously reported. It turns out the report was right on one count, since the Cygnus is once again set to be launched on the Atlas V rocket and there's been no mention of going back to the reconfigured Antares.
But as tempting as it may be to think of the Cygnus going up in flames in space as some form of NASA revenge or to look at it as a sort of metaphorical display of how NASA officials are feeling about Orbital these days, that's probably not what's going on. After all, in January NASA gave Orbital — along with SpaceX and Sierra Nevada — a new $14 billion commercial resupply contract, and this one will run through 2019, according to Bloomberg.
So the agency can't be that upset about how the Orbital explosion made it apparent that NASA was lacking in the kind of redundancy that would have seen NASA with a backup plan more solid than having to call the Japanese and ask if the ISS supplies could hitch a ride on their next launch. Or at least they probably aren't that upset now, two years later. Maybe.
Anyway, once Cygnus is rolling on its own after parting ways and getting some distance between the capsule and the ISS, Saffire, an experiment designed by researchers from 11 U.S. and international government agencies and universities, will remotely ignite a flammable material inside Cygnus.
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Even though NASA has been launching spacecraft for years, and has even set very tiny fires to materials in space for scientific research, NASA scientists have never focused much on how fire acts in microgravity, the space agency states. Unlike those earlier attempts at playing with fire, a truly impressive blaze will be created when NASA scientists light a large flammable object about three feet long and about one foot wide.
The instruments on Cygnus will let the researchers track how the fire burns as it makes its way through the bowels of the spacecraft. There will be sensors to track the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels and temperature during the blaze, and two cameras will allow the researchers to actually watch the craft be engulfed in flames for the 15 to 20 minutes they plan on allowing it to burn. Once that's done, the researchers will spend about a week downloading all the data gathered from the fire.
As for Orbital's Cygnus, well, it will slide out of orbit and start its descent back into Earth's atmosphere. As the battered, fire-gutted capsule plunges helplessly toward Earth, it will once again be engulfed in flames, as the destruction that NASA started is finished off by the unstoppable force of Earth's gravity sucking it down. By the time that process is finished, there will be nothing left of the Cygnus.
However, none of the commercial resupply capsules are designed to survive re-entry, so the complete disintegration of Orbital's Cygnus clearly isn't anything personal. Probably.