Space station cargo mission includes toying with fire in orbit

A spacecraft set to launch Tuesday morning is to bring thousands of kilograms of cargo to the International Space Station, including supplies for the crew and a curious scientific experiment.

Orbital ATK's Cygnus ship is scheduled to launch from a U.S. air force facility in Cape Canaveral, Fla., during a half-hour window starting at 11:11 a.m. ET. The private-sector company is one of two under contract to NASA to deliver cargo and supplies to the space station.

The supplies on Tuesday's launch include components for a scientific experiment called Saffire-III, short for "Spacecraft Fire Experiment III." The experiment involves deliberately setting fire to material aboard the unmanned Cygnus ship after it has departed the space station.

Sensors will record detailed data about how the fire spreads and relay it back to Earth before the Cygnus ship burns up in the atmosphere on re-entry. The goal is to understand more about flames and fires in the low-gravity environment of space, and to help determine the best kinds of flame-resistant materials for use in space missions.

NASA tweeted about the launch over the weekend:

Tuesday's scheduled launch will use an Atlas V rocket to get the Cygnus ship into space. It will be Orbital ATK's eighth mission to the International Space Station. One of those, in 2014, failed when the launch vehicle exploded shortly after takeoff.

Tuesday's launch is also set to feature the first 360-degree livestream of a rocket launch. NASA's YouTube channel will carry the video feed starting 10 minutes before launch time.

China looks to make history

China is also planning to make space history over the next week with the launch of its first unmanned cargo spacecraft, Tianzhou-1. The launch is scheduled for sometime between Thursday and next Monday, the China Manned Space Agency said Monday.

The plan is for Tianzhou-1 to dock with China's Tiangong-2 space lab in orbit as part of a refuelling mission.

The space lab is a testing ground for China's own permanent, orbiting space station, which the country hopes to complete by 2022.