Robot cargo ship delivers late Christmas to space station crew

Scott Sutherland

At shortly after 6 a.m. Eastern Time Sunday, NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins reached out into space with the robotic Canadarm2, snagging Orbital Sciences' Cygnus automated vessel and drawing it for docking with the International Space Station.

This delivery is the second successful flight of a Cygnus spacecraft to the space station, and the first official cargo run for Orbital Sciences. The vessel's hold contains over 1,000 kilograms of food, science experiments, equipment and spare parts, as well as late Christmas presents for the six-member space station crew.

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The reason for the late celebration for the astronauts and cosmonauts currently on board the ISS is because of several delays in the launch of this delivery mission. The original launch date was scheduled for December 18th, which would have allowed the crew to open their Christmas presents along with everyone else on Earth. However, due to a failure in the space station's cooling system, which required at least two spacewalks to fix, the launch had to be postponed. The next launch date was set for January 7th, but the extreme cold due to the polar vortex forced Orbital to delay for one more day, setting the next launch for 1:32 p.m. on January 8th. However, exactly one day before that — down to the minute — the sun blasted out its first X-class solar flare of 2014. The burst of high-energy solar protons that accompanied the flare had the potential to cause problems with the Antares rocket that would be carrying the cargo craft into orbit, so they had to go through one last delay. Finally, after one more delay, Orbital's delivery lifted off from NASA's Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallop's Island, VA, at 1:07 p.m. on Thursday, January 9th.

In addition to the food, equipment and presents, several important science experiments are being delivered on this cargo run.

One that could have a lasting impact on humans in space, and could even affect us here on Earth, is an experiment to test why antibiotics are less effective in space. There's a two-fold threat from germs in space, since they become more virulent, while at the same time, antibiotics lose their effectiveness. Also, any insights they gain about why the antibiotics loose their effectiveness could end up helping us to design better ways of fighting germs here on Earth. Another is Ants in Space, where five ant farms that arrived at the station will be monitored continuously, and their behaviour will be compared to similar ant farms in classrooms all around the world. This is a fairly light experiment, but it has similar implications for the future, as it's designed to get students thinking about science, excited about science, and excited about what we're doing in space.

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This launch followed some very good news about the International Space Station.

On Wednesday, the U.S. government agreed to extend the lease on the station for an extra four years, meaning that rather than being abandoned and de-orbited in 2020, the station's mission would carry it into 2024, with the possibility of that being extended again to 2028. That means that we can benefit from the science conducted on the station even longer, which not only promises to help us expand human civilization out into space, but also promises to benefit our lives here on Earth as well.

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