The Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft, launched on December 7, has just reached the International Space Station and was captured by the Canadarm2 robotic arm. Astronaut Kjell Lindgren, assisted by his colleague Scott Kelly, began the slow maneuver that will move Cygnus until it docks with the Station’s Unity node after about two hours.
The Orb-4 mission is essentially accomplished because the Cygnus spacecraft can’t land and when it comes back into Earth’s atmosphere it will disintegrate. For this reason, it will be used to get rid of components failed or that can’t be used any longer on the International Space Station: all of that will be loaded on the Cygnus and will disintegrate along with it.
This final use of the Cygnus “Deke Slayton II” spacecraft is relatively simple and will probably take place around the end of January 2016. In these cases, they never give an exact date for a cargo spacecraft leaving because it also depends on other tasks that can have a higher priority.
Tomorrow the crew of the International Space Station should open the Cygnus spacecraft’s hatch and at that point the cargo will be gradually brought to the Station. Subsequently, all that has now become garbage will be loaded on the Cygnus and the spacecraft will be ready for departure. These operations will continue slowly for a few weeks.
This is the fourth of ten official missions established in the Orbital ATK’s contract with NASA to supply the International Space Station after the extension announced in March 2015. It also included the one ended in the October 2014 mishap and the return to success is critical to ATK Orbital also thinking about the next resupply contract that will be likely awarded during 2016.
The next mission of the Cygnus spacecraft is tentatively scheduled for March 2016, again using an Atlas V rocket. Regarding the following mission, the situation is more fluid in the sense that not only could start later than May 2016 but the rocket used depends on the progress made in the development of the new version of Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket.