Early risers on the US East Coast might get a bit of a show tomorrow morning: private space company Orbital ATK will launch its Antares rocket with a Cygnus spacecraft at 4:39AM ET from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.
The mission is the company’s ninth flight for NASA, and is headed to the International Space Station, where it will drop off 7,400 pounds of scientific equipment and supplies when it docks on Thursday, May 24th.
One piece of equipment that the rocket will carry is the Cold Atom Laboratory, which will use magnetic fields and lasers to create clouds of atoms called Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs), cooled to just above absolute zero. On Earth, those BECs are dragged down by gravity, limiting the amount of time they can be observed, but aboard the microgravity environment of the ISS, they can be observed for much longer — up to 10 seconds and should give scientists some insight into how the particles interact with one another.
Once the Cygnus spacecraft departs the station seven weeks from now, it will release a six CubeSats. The tiny satellites will carry everything from miniature, experimental radar instruments to study precipitation in Earth’s atmosphere to new technologies designed to cut through the growing amount of radio frequency interference around Earth. The Cygnus will also carry a new communications system called the Common Communication for Visiting Vehicles (C2V2)m for the first time.
If the weather is clear, residents from Massachusetts to South Carolina might be able to see the rocket lift off early tomorrow morning. Orbital ATK’s last mission to the ISS took place last November, and the company is scheduled to perform another mission later this fall.