Come March 22 and Nasa's commercial partner Orbital ATK will launch its Cygnus spacecraft into orbit atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket for its fifth contracted resupply mission to the International Space Station.
The flight, known as Orbital ATK CRS-6, will deliver investigations to the space station to study fire, meteors, regolith, adhesion, and 3D printing in microgravity.
In the decades of research into combustion and fire processes in reduced gravity, few experiments have directly studied spacecraft fire safety under low-gravity conditions.
None of these experiments have studied sample and environment sizes typical of those expected in a spacecraft fire.
The "Saffire-I" investigation will provide a new way to study a realistic fire on an exploration vehicle, which has not been possible in the past because the risks for performing such studies on manned spacecraft are too high.
Instruments on the returning Cygnus will measure flame growth, oxygen use and more. Results could determine microgravity flammability limits for several spacecraft materials, help to validate Nasa's material selection criteria, and help scientists understand how microgravity and limited oxygen affect flame size.
A less heated investigation called "Meteor Composition Determination" will enable the first space-based observations of meteors entering Earth's atmosphere from space, the US space agency said in a statement.
A more "grounded" Strata-1 probe will study the properties and behaviour of regolith - the impact-shattered "soil" found on asteroids, comets, the Moon and other airless worlds.
From grounded to gripping, another investigation launching takes its inspiration from small lizards. The "Gecko Gripper" investigation tests a gecko-adhesive gripping device that can stick on command in the harsh environment of space.
Once adhered, the gripper can bear loads up to 20 pounds. The gripper can remain in place indefinitely and can also be easily removed and reused.
From adhesion to additive, the new Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF) will also be part of the cargo. Additive manufacturing (3D printing) is the process of building a part layer-by-layer, with an efficient use of the material.
The facility is capable of producing parts out of a wide variety of space-rated composites, including engineered plastics.
The ability to manufacture on the orbiting laboratory enables on-demand repair and production capability, as well as essential research for manufacturing on long-term missions.