Tuesday, January 18, 2011

MDA and the Cygnus Cargo Spacecraft

According to the January 13th, 2011 Canada NewsWire article "MDA provides additional advanced technology solutions to Orbital's Cargo Delivery Spacecraft," BC based Macdonald Dettwiler (MDA) and Orbital Sciences Corporation (Orbital) will be "exercising an option" on a contract announced January 19, 2010 for additional robotic units to assist in the capture and mating of the Cygnus cargo delivery spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS).
Artist rendering of the Cygnus spacecraft approaching the ISS c/o Orbital website.
The original contract, as outlined in the January 19th, 2010 Spaceref.com article "MDA contract will enable robotic capture and mating of Orbital's Cygnus(TM) Cargo Delivery Spacecraft to the ISS" was for $2.4 million USD for the design and development of the first unit but included an option to purchase additional units for follow-on operational missions worth "at least" $4.0 million USD.

The Cygnus is being developed by Orbital and Thales Alenia Space (Thales) under the National Aeronautics and Space Administrations (NASA) Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program.

It's one of at least seven spacecraft (not including the soon to be retired US space shuttle and the not quite dead yet Lockheed Martin designed Orion spacecraft) presently being developed or in existence and capable of delivering either cargo or astronauts to the ISS. Others include:
Soyuz TMA-7
  • The venerable Russian Soyuz (able to carry up to three passengers) and Progress spacecrafts (able to carry up to 2,300kg of supplies to LEO) which possess a history going back to the 1960's and which currently supply cargo, crews and even berths for space tourists traveling to the ISS (through the Virginia based private company Space Adventures Ltd.). 
Shenzou spacecraft schematics.
  • The Peoples Republic of China developed Shenzou spacecraft (based on the Russian Soyuz and operational since 2003) which normally launches from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center aboard a Long March 2F launch vehicle and is capable of carrying three passengers or an equivalent cargo to low Earth orbit (LEO).It has never visited the ISS.
The ESA "Jules Verne" ATV.
Artists rendering of the CTS-100
  • The Bigelow Aerospace/ Boeing CTS 100 capsule which is still in development and also partially funded (like Cygnus and Dragon) under the NASA COTS program. Specifications for this capsule have not as yet been released but it is expected to carry up to seven passengers or equivalent supplies to LEO using a variety of launchers.
As noted in my January 11th, 2011 post "The Shrinking Market for Sounding Rockets," suborbital focused rocket company Blue Origin has also received NASA COTS funding to develop concepts and technologies to support future human spaceflight operations (but hasn't announced anything yet) so it looks like the list above not quite complete.

It also looks like there is the potential for quite the traffic jam in LEO over the next few years. Let's hope that Canadian companies continue to take advantage of the growing opportunities represented by these firms.

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