NASA launched the Orbital-2 Cygnus spacecraft yesterday, the second cargo delivery flight to the International Space Station as part of the $1.9 billion NASA Commercial Resupply Services contract, with another six launches expected by the end of 2016. The pod is carrying 3,300 pounds worth of supplies to the ISS, including spare parts, provisions, and experimental hardware, and it is expected to arrive at the ISS Wednesday morning.

NASA Orbital-2

SPQR exo-brakes aim to improve re-entry tech

As the name suggests, the now defunct space shuttle program was supposed to give NASA an easy way to ship supplies and astronauts back and forth between earth and the ISS, but the cost was far more than anyone anticipated. Now that NASA is back to using disposable rockets, the unmanned Orbital missions are a relatively cheap way to resupply the ISS, and the pod will be repurposed for waste removal (by firing it into the atmosphere for incineration) once it has been unpacked.

This still leaves the problem of sending samples back to earth, but Orbital-2 may have the solution to that problem as well. The Small Payload Quick Return (SPQR) system uses an exo-atmospheric braking device, similar in principle to a parachute, that should allow small samples to be enter the atmosphere at low speeds and a precise angle to make re-entry less challenging and hopefully less expensive.

NanoRacks projects look toward longer space flight

The Orbital-2 mission will also carry a pair of NanoRacks projects that are meant to help with further human space exploration, the Girl Scouts of Hawaii – Microgreen Plant Growth and the National Center for Earth and Space Science – Charlie Brown projects. Both projects are aimed at growing edible plants in small spaces that sprout in extremely short time frames (10-15 days for the Girl Scouts’ project). Since shuttle don’t have enough room to grow large amounts of produce in line with the usual seasonal calendar (let alone to store and process all of it) it’s more space efficient to grow microgreens or other small herbs, eat them immediately, and start the cycle over. The NanoRacks program will also be used to grow penicillin on the ISS, and even if it’s never put to use for space exploration, it will help communities with poor soil or limited space for agriculture grow food inexpensively here on earth.