A Japanese cargo ship undocked from the International Space Station today (Jan. 27) and will spend the next week doing a science experiment in orbit before burning up in Earth's atmosphere on Super Bowl Sunday (Feb. 5).
HTV-6, also known as Kounotori 6, is Japan's sixth cargo resupply mission to the space station. It arrived at the orbiting lab in December with nearly 5 tons of supplies, including food, water, science gear, spare parts and Christmas gifts for the crewmembers. It also brought along new lithium-ion batteries for a major power upgrade that took two spacewalks and weeks of robotic work to complete.
After spending seven weeks docked to the space station's Harmony module, the uncrewed cargo ship was sent away to eventually burn up in Earth's atmosphere along with a few tons of garbage the crew stuffed inside. Six old nickel-hydrogen batteries were also on board for disposal. [Japan's Robotic Space Cargo Ship Fleet in Photos]
The cargo ship departed at 10:46 a.m. EST (1546 GMT). Though the undocking was running behind schedule by about 16 minutes, NASA reported that everything was "nominal," or functioning properly.
Commander Shane Kimbrough of NASA and flight engineer Thomas Pesquet of the European Space Agency manned the controls from inside the space station's Cupola observatory — a room with the world's largest space window and an incredible view of Earth. The Cupola serves as a control room for a 57.7-foot (17.6-meter) robotic arm named Canadarm2, which Kimbrough and Pesquet manually operated to send off HTV-6.
Before HTV-6 deorbits and burns up in the atmosphere, it will spend a week conducting Japan's Kounotori Integrated Tether Experiment (KITE), a new technology that could one day help to eliminate dangerous space junk from Earth's orbit.
HTV-6 will unleash a 700-meter-long (2,296 feet) electrodynamic tether designed to latch onto pieces of orbiting debris and drag them down to Earth's atmosphere to be incinerated. While performing this task, the spacecraft will maintain a safe distance from the space station by orbiting the Earth about 12 miles (19 km) below the space station and 23 miles (37 km) ahead of it.
On Feb. 4, the spacecraft will perform a safe and controlled deorbit before meeting its fiery demise in the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean.