Misbehaving sun delays space station supply flight
FILE - This May 23, 2010 image provided by NASA shows the International Space Station with the Earth in the background made from the space shuttle Atlantis after undocking. On Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014, NASA said the White House was poised to announce an extension of the space station's lifetime until at least 2024. The previous end-of-life date was 2020. (AP Photo/NASA)
An Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket sits on the launch pad at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Va. at sunrise on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014. On Wednesday, Orbital Sciences Corp. decided to cancel the scheduled launch to the International Space Station due to an unusually high level of space radiation from a solar flare that might interfere with electronic equipment in the rocket. (AP Photo/NASA, Bill Ingalls) MANDATORY CREDIT: NASA, BILL INGALLS
In this Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014 image made available by NASA, a giant cloud of solar particles, a coronal mass ejection, explodes off the sun, lower right, captured by the European Space Agency and NASA's Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. The sun is obscured to show the atmosphere around it. The solar flare caused the cancellation of a launch to the International Space Station on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014. (AP Photo/ESA, NASA - SOHO)
A strong solar storm is interfering with the latest grocery run to the International Space Station.
On the bright side, the orbiting lab has won a four-year extension, pushing its projected end-of-lifetime to at least 2024, a full decade from now.
“This is a big plus for us,” said NASA’s human exploration chief, Bill Gerstenmaier.
Yesterday, Orbital Sciences Corp. delayed its space station delivery mission for the third time.
Another launch attempt will be made this afternoon.
The company’s unmanned rocket, the Antares, was set to blast off from Wallops Island, Va., with a capsule full of supplies and science experiments, including ants for an educational project. But several hours before yesterday afternoon’s planned flight, company officials took the unusual step of postponing the launch for fear that solar radiation could doom the rocket.
Orbital Sciences’s chief technical officer, Antonio Elias, said solar particles might interfere with electronics equipment in the rocket, and lead to a launch failure.
After evaluating the situation all day yesterday, Orbital Sciences decided to aim for today at 1:07 p.m.
The solar flare peaked Tuesday afternoon and more activity was expected, but the company determined that the space weather was within acceptable risk levels. The sun is at the peak of a weak 11-year storm cycle.
Although the solar storm barely rated moderate, some passenger jets were being diverted from the poles to avoid potential communication and health issues. GPS devices also were at risk.
But the six men aboard the space station were safe from the solar fallout, NASA said, and satellites also faced no threat. The Cygnus cargo ship aboard the rocket, for example, is built to withstand radiation from solar flare-ups.
The storm also will push the colorful Northern Lights farther south than usual to the northern United States.
The Cygnus was supposed to fly in December, but a breakdown in the space station’s cooling system required repairs by spacewalking astronauts. The repair job, which was completed on Christmas Eve, bumped the supply mission to this week. Then frigid temperatures forced a launch delay from Tuesday to yesterday. Then came the sun – at full force.
Frank Culbertson, an executive vice president for Virginia-based Orbital Sciences, said the delays can be frustrating, but he pointed out there’s nothing wrong with the rocket itself.
“All we’re really delaying is the success that’s going to come when we execute this mission,” he told reporters.
NASA is using two private companies – Orbital Sciences and the California-based SpaceX – to keep the space station stocked. The space agency turned to private industry for help following the space shuttle program; the last shuttle flight was in 2011.
Russia, Europe and Japan also periodically launch supply ships.
Russia corners the space station market, though, on astronaut travel.
NASA astronauts are hitching rides on Russian Soyuz capsules until American companies are ready to launch human crews. Gerstenmaier said that should happen by 2017. NASA will evaluate the proposals again this spring before deciding whether to buy more Soyuz seats for that year and beyond, he said. Each seat costs many tens of millions of dollars.