Orbital Spacecraft Blasts Off to Study Disasters at Zero Gravity

An Orbital ATK Inc. spacecraft soared toward orbit Tuesday laden with supplies for the International Space Station and an experiment to study one of the most-feared disasters for the lab -- fire.

The Cygnus capsule was launched aboard an Atlas V rocket from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force station. It is the second time that Orbital has used a United Launch Alliance vehicle to send its cargo hauler to space as it develops a replacement to a craft that exploded in 2014.

The unmanned spacecraft is on course for a March 26 rendezvous with the space station, where it will deliver about 7,900 pounds (3,600 kilograms) of food, clothing, spare parts and equipment. It’s the fifth such mission for Orbital under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

During the capsule’s return trip to Earth, scientists plan to light the biggest-ever man-made fire in space. It’s the first of three planned tests aimed at preventing a spacecraft fire, “one of the greatest crew safety concerns for NASA and the international space exploration community,” Gary Ruff, the NASA project manager, said before the launch.

The Spacecraft Fire Experiment-I experiment will be monitored by video cameras and conducted remotely in the capsule, which is designed to carry humans and whose environment is virtually identical to that of the space station.

While the vehicle is at the station, crew members will install another experiment designed to record and measure the dynamic forces as the Cygnus capsule breaks up and incinerates while re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere.